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Tolstoy’s Last Letter

[From a colleague:] Leo Tolstoy’s last completed letter, dictated from his sick-bed at the Astapovo train station on November 1, 1910 (six days before his death), and addressed to his son Seryozha and daughter Tanya, included a warning that Seryozha should not allow himself to be seduced by Darwinism. Here is the relevant passage:

“The views you have acquired about Darwinism, evolution and the struggle for existence won’t explain to you the meaning of your life and won’t give you guidance in your actions, and a life without an explanation of its meaning and importance, and without the unfailing guidance that stems from it is a pitiful existence.”

—Tolstoy’s Letters: Volume II, 1880-1910, selected, edited, and translated by
R.F. Christian. London: Athlone Press, 1978; No. 607, p. 717.

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75 Responses to Tolstoy’s Last Letter

  1. Amen, Leo.

  2. Devil’s Advocate:

    “The meaning and importance of my life is what I make of it. I gain guidance from observation and testing. And even if it is a pitiful existence in some abstract and abitrary way, then so-be-it. I will make do regardless, which may be better knowing I do not have an eternal debt to pay.”

  3. knowing I do not have an eternal debt to pay”

    Devil’s devil’s advocate:

    And the way you’ll “know” that is what?

  4. I was playing Devil’s Advocate. Now you expect me to actually substantiate what I say? ;)

    But anyway- I would know because of my pitiful existence- which appears to be defined as having no ultimate purpose besides survival and reproducing.

    What is the meaning of the life of a crocodile? What gives it “guidance”?

  5. The crocodile is not able to ponder the meaning of it’s existance.

    We are. ;)

  6. Tolsoy wasn’t the only one to point out that science and nature can’t give you much philosophical guidance. Whether our bodies evolved or not, we are ultimately responsible for how we behave. This is an interesting article by Stephen Jay Gould on this very subject and he even cites the Tolstoy quote.

    http://slash.autonomedia.org/a.....01/1337207

    here is a snippet:
    “There are no shortcuts to moral insight. Nature is not intrinsically anything that can offer comfort or solace in human terms–if only because our species is such an insignificant latecomer in a world not constructed for us. So much the better. The answers to moral dilemmas are not lying out there, waiting to be discovered. They reside, like the kingdom of God, within us–the most difficult and inaccessible spot for any discovery or consensus.”

  7. I would imagine that most Darwinists would agree with that Tolstoy said. You will not get moral guidance from a scientific theory.

  8. “because our species is such an insignificant latecomer in a world not constructed for us”

    Now there’s an unwarranted assumption. Sheeesh.

  9. Clearly these “last words” are part of the Christian fundamentalist conspiracy against science. Just notice who translated it:

    “and translated by R.F. Christian. London: Athlone Press, 1978; No. 607, p. 717.”

    See?! What more evidence you need?!!! ;)

  10. I don’t expect moral guidance from a scientific theory, be it gravitational theory, evolutionary theory, or atomic theory. Why would I? We shouldn’t conflate science with scientism. Tolstoy seems to conflate Darwinism, evolution and the struggle for existence as a package deal. Scientism, aka Darwinism or philosophical naturalism, is the philosophy that nature is all there is. Evolution is a scientific theory. The struggle for existence is a fact of life, not something Darwin invented. We see it in action when we plant a garden, or treat our pets for heartworm, fleas, ticks, etc.

  11. “The struggle for existence is a fact of life, not something Darwin invented. We see it in action when we plant a garden, or treat our pets for heartworm, fleas, ticks, etc.”

    Yes, but having that as the basis of one’s worldview (inevitable given a strong belief in Darwinism) causes selfishness at the very least and horrible things like eugenics and genocide at the very worst. Darwinism morally justifies those who desire such a worldview and in fact encourages them to look out for themselves in a battle for survival.

  12. jasonng,

    You really need to broaden your circle of acquaintances if you think that Darwinism inevitably leads to selfishness.

    What *is* bears no necessary relation to what *ought to be*. A Darwinian’s belief in the struggle for existence doesn’t oblige him/her to be selfish, any more than a typical Christian’s belief that humans are sinful by nature obligates him/her to sin perpetually.

  13. I’m just saying that a person abiding by Darwinist philosophy has no obligation to be selfless, except by established societal morals and ethics. Just because a Darwinist can be selfless does not mean the Darwinian philosophy entails any such concept. Thus a true Darwinist would be primarily concerned with his/her own survival over that of others.

    “a typical Christian’s belief that humans are sinful by nature obligates him/her to sin perpetually.”

    Actually a Christian should by definition aim to be selfless and avoid sin as much as possible. The Christian belief is that the ideal person is selfless and does not sin. The Darwinian belief is that the ideal person is glorified above all others, a leader through physical and mental domination over those weaker than him/her.

  14. Another literary figure weighs in:

    “…But when its whole significance dawns on you, your heart sinks into a heap of sand within you. There is a hideous fatalism about it, a ghastly reduction of beauty and intelligence, of strength and purpose, of honor and aspiration, to such casually picturesque changes as an avalanche may make in a mountain landscape, or a railway accident in a human figure. To call this Natural Selection is a blasphemy, possible to many for whom Nature is nothing but a casual aggregation of inert and dead matter, but eternally impossible to the spirits and souls of the righteous. If it be no blasphemy but a truth of science, then the stars of heaven, the showers of dew, the winter and summer, the fire and heat, the mountains and hills, may no longer exalt the Lord with us by praise: their work is to modify all things by blindly starving and murdering everything that is not lucky enough to survive in the universal struggle for hogwash.” — George Bernard Shaw in his preface to Back to Methuselah (quoted in The Survival of Charles Darwin by Ronald W. Clark).

    valerie: “What *is* bears no necessary relation to what *ought to be*.”

    How does one decide what ought to be? According to Darwin, our moral sense is just an illusion.

  15. Valerie,

    Just wondering… is the following an absolute statement that should be greeted with suspicion:

    “What *is* bears no necessary relation to what *ought to be*.”

    Also, might what *is* bear a relation to what *ought to be* that is not necessary but nonetheless real?

    Cheers,
    Dave T.

  16. jasonng wrote:
    “I’m just saying that a person abiding by Darwinist philosophy has no obligation to be selfless, except by established societal morals and ethics.”

    And by his or her own conscience.

    “Just because a Darwinist can be selfless does not mean the Darwinian philosophy entails any such concept. Thus a true Darwinist would be primarily concerned with his/her own survival over that of others.”

    First of all, evolutionary theory does not predict that selfishness will always triumph. Cooperation and other pro-social behaviors are often better strategies than selfishness for getting your genes into future generations, which is what evolution is all about.

    Secondly, even if selfishness did tend to prevail, why should that oblige a “Darwinist” to promote it? If a “gravitationist” thinks that things on Earth tend to fall, is he honor-bound to oppose the manufacture of airplanes (or shelves, for that matter)? If he doesn’t, does he earn your criticism for not being a “true gravitationist”?

    “Actually a Christian should by definition aim to be selfless and avoid sin as much as possible. The Christian belief is that the ideal person is selfless and does not sin.”

    My point was to show you that the same logic you applied to Darwinians would, if applied to Christians, obligate them to sin. Since Christians aren’t obligated to sin in order to be consistent, Darwinians are not obligated to be selfish.

    A Christian can believe that the world is full of evil without believing that she should promote evil, just as a Darwinian can see the struggle for existence everywhere in the living world without believing that it is a good or noble thing. Darwin himself was no fan of the brutality of evolution, writing:

    “What a book a Devil’s Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature.”

    Do you consider Darwin a “true Darwinist”?

  17. j,

    That

    was

    awesome.

    I think I want that on my headstone.

  18. Yes, but valerie how does the Darwinian establish what is “good” or “evil”? Are these not illusory? There is no standard to measure them against under this world view.

    The Christian has an absolute objective standard to juxtapose such notions.

  19. Sorry, but if Darwin’s narrative is true, then I simply can’t bring myself to really care about anything. As discussed in another recent thread, why be good? I suppose if (under this paradigm) one chooses to adhere to societal conventions, it is really only a matter of how one was raised, or habit or something of that nature. Personally, I find within myself the inclination to sink to unfathomable depths of depravity, which is what I need to be saved from. I have nothing in and of myself to be proud of or to cling to, I need to be changed into something else altogether.

  20. The Shaw quote is beautiful. It is a perfect encapsulation of the rebellion of the human spirit against the brute determinism which is so inseparable from the materialism of Darwinism. I just ended a lengthy discussion on another thread with a very sincere and committed theistic evolutionist, though, who is a totally committed Christian as well as a believer in Darwinism. I cannot say that I can in any way accept this position, but I think it would be a mistake to impute to people who are Darwinists, especially of the strictly materialist variety, amorality. It is an inconsistent charge, since the essentialist believes that everyone has an immortal soul, and that this immortal soul is the substance or part within the human which connects it to higher values. THe materialist may deny they have this internal substance, but if they have it, they have it,whether they recognize it or not. So, if that is the case, then of course they will be able to form moral opinions and feel the inhibitions which accompany this higher inner essense. However, since creation is quite lawful, both physically and spiritually, and ‘use it or lose it’ might be a simple description of one such law, someone who categorically denies the existence of something in themselves for a long time in their spiritual history, will eventually cause that function to weaken to the point where it is no longer able to exert its proper energy. Today I think the extreme proponents of the most rigid materialism are such people. The inner voice is completely stilled. It is dead. The ability to feel its dying throes, which might be another way of describing nineteenth-century existentialism, is now completely over for such individuals. Therefore, arguing about it will not work, since arguing appeals only to the lesser or more material function of intellect. If such individuals are staunchly moral, as Richard Dawkins for example, claims to be, it is because they have so completely given themselves over to the belief in the brutal determinism of forces beyond their control that it terrifies them to imagine the implications of their own deeply held philosophy.

  21. Dear Valerie,

    You’re right that lots of Darwinists are good people. The question is whether or not Darwin-ism can account for why anyone “OUGHT” to be good.

    At first sight, it seems that the answer must be “Yes.” After all, some Darwinists offer Darwinist accounts of the origin of behavior typically considered “good,” and they do so in terms of, for example, the survival advantage to the species conferred by, say, altruism.

    The main problem I see with such accounts is that they don’t really explain the “OUGHTNESS” of the moral “ought.” For example, if someone says, “the oughtness of morally good actions is natural selection’s way of telling us what we need to do to survive as a species,” I would reply: “even supposing that that is true, why should I worry about the survival of the human species?”

    In other words: where does an impersonal, amoral natural process get the authority to oblige me to do anything? The most such a process can do is dictate what we need to do as a matter of fact if we are going to survive. But it doesn’t have the wherewithal to transform that “what you need to do” into a “what you ought to do.”

    Although I have really problems with the claim that you can’t get an ought from an is, I think that it actually appplies—devastatingly—to attempts to give Darwinian accounts of moral oughtness.

    Cordially,
    Adrian

  22. “And by his or her own conscience.”

    Where does this conscience fit into the grand scheme of things? Darwinism is based on random mutation and natural selection. In other words, it’s about getting the best survival traits and making sure you survive, even if that means getting rid of others that would hinder your survival.

    “My point was to show you that the same logic you applied to Darwinians would, if applied to Christians, obligate them to sin. Since Christians aren’t obligated to sin in order to be consistent, Darwinians are not obligated to be selfish.”

    Do you realize how absurd you’re sounding? Christianity recognizes the existance of sin and Christians are obliged to turn AWAY from sinful behaviour. Darwinist philosophy has no concept of right or wrong, and in fact obliges anyone who believes in it to fight for one’s survival at essentially any cost.

    “Do you consider Darwin a “true Darwinist”?”

    Darwin realized that no one would actually thought about it would accept the implications of true Darwinist philosophy. He certainly didn’t want to accept it either, but he honestly thought it was true at the time. So, naturally he had to tone it down a little for it to gain wide acceptance.

    Today’s Darwinists try their best to adhere to their philosophy while stifling its most glaring moral implications by suggesting that morality itself, even the sense of helping those that will not return favour (thereby an act that may be detrimental to one’s survival), actually evolved by the same process that is inherently selfish.

  23. Scientific theories such as evolutionary theory have nothing to do with morality. Morality is a social contract between people, something people agree on, partly for selfish reasons: I won’t do to you what I don’t want you to do to me. That’s exactly what the bible is too: a collection of moralistic stories that a certain group of powerful people agreed upon a long time ago. The idea that only religious people can be moral is simply false. Animals other than humans have morals too. Frans de Waal, a famous primate researcher, makes a good scientific case for this.

  24. j asks:
    “How does one decide what ought to be?”

    Note that the answer is the same whether or not you believe in an objective external morality: We search our consciences, we think about it, and we listen to what others have to say about it. We reach conclusions that may differ from the sincerely held conclusions of others.

    taciturnus asks:
    “Just wondering… is the following an absolute statement that should be greeted with suspicion: ‘What *is* bears no necessary relation to what *ought to be*.’”

    I assume this is a reference to the discussion of absolutism on the other thread. If so, I would say no, there is no reason to regard my statement with suspicion. After all, I’m willing to entertain your arguments for why ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be’ are necessarily related.

    “Also, might what *is* bear a relation to what *ought to be* that is not necessary but nonetheless real?”

    Sure. In a world where what *is* accorded perfectly with our moral sense of what *ought to be*, the two would share the relation of identity. It would not be a necessary relation, because a moral defect introduced into such a world needn’t affect our standards of morality.

  25. Scott wrote:
    “Yes, but valerie how does the Darwinian establish what is “good” or “evil”? Are these not illusory? There is no standard to measure them against under this world view.”

    See my reply to j above. And keep in mind that the evolutionary origin of our moral sense doesn’t prove that good and evil are illusory, any more than the evolutionary origin of our reasoning ability proves that truth and falsehood are illusory.

    “The Christian has an absolute objective standard to juxtapose such notions.”

    Not true. Honest, sincere Christians disagree among themselves on matters of morality. If they had access to an “absolute objective standard”, these disputes would vanish.

    jacktone wrote:
    “Sorry, but if Darwin’s narrative is true, then I simply can’t bring myself to really care about anything. As discussed in another recent thread, why be good? …Personally, I find within myself the inclination to sink to unfathomable depths of depravity, which is what I need to be saved from. I have nothing in and of myself to be proud of or to cling to, I need to be changed into something else altogether.”

    Wow, jacktone, I hope that’s not true. If it is, then your morality is really only about pleasing an outside authority, and not about contributing to the well-being of others.

    Many people believe that their morality is utterly dependent on their religion. I like to ask them, “Suppose you came across incontrovertible proof that your God doesn’t exist and that your holy book(s) are a sham. Would you really start killing, stealing, and abusing the elderly? Would you stop treating your spouse and children with respect and affection?”

    tinabrewer wrote:
    “The Shaw quote is beautiful. It is a perfect encapsulation of the rebellion of the human spirit against the brute determinism which is so inseparable from the materialism of Darwinism.”

    Shaw considers natural selection “a ghastly reduction of beauty and intelligence, of strength and purpose, of honor and aspiration, to such casually picturesque changes as an avalanche may make in a mountain landscape…”

    My first response is that truth isn’t required to be palatable to humans. Part of being a mature human is in coming to grips with the aspects of reality that don’t conform to your fondest wishes.

    Beyond that, I don’t find Darwinian theory to be a “ghastly reduction.” On the contrary, I think it shows us that we’ve been underestimating the power of “brute matter” all along. Matter has the potential to produce the human mind with all of its best creations: music, science, civilization, morality. The error is not in “reducing” mind to “brute matter”, but rather in labeling as “brute matter” something which is capable of producing these exalted phenomena, along with the rest of the Universe’s wonders.

    “The materialist may deny they have this internal substance [the soul], but if they have it, they have it,whether they recognize it or not. So, if that is the case, then of course they will be able to form moral opinions and feel the inhibitions which accompany this higher inner essense…someone who categorically denies the existence of something in themselves for a long time in their spiritual history, will eventually cause that function to weaken to the point where it is no longer able to exert its proper energy. Today I think the extreme proponents of the most rigid materialism are such people.”

    If this were true, materialists would be noticeably immoral relative to the larger population. I see no evidence for this.

    “If such individuals are staunchly moral, as Richard Dawkins for example, claims to be, it is because they have so completely given themselves over to the belief in the brutal determinism of forces beyond their control that it terrifies them to imagine the implications of their own deeply held philosophy.”

    I can assure you that materialism need not be a terrifying belief. But even if it were, why would that terror lead to moral behavior?

  26. “The main problem I see with such accounts is that they don’t really explain the “OUGHTNESS” of the moral “ought.” For example, if someone says, “the oughtness of morally good actions is natural selection’s way of telling us what we need to do to survive as a species,” I would reply: “even supposing that that is true, why should I worry about the survival of the human species?””

    Actually, natural selection does not “care” about the survival of species. It cares about the propagation of genes, and of the survival of individuals as vehicles for those genes to get into the next generation.

    That aside, there’s no reason that you *have* to worry about the survival of the species, or of yourself, or of your genes. You can choose to commit suicide, for example, or to use birth control and thereby have no children. What natural selection “wants” is not binding on you, which is the point I’m trying to make to jasonng.

    “In other words: where does an impersonal, amoral natural process get the authority to oblige me to do anything? The most such a process can do is dictate what we need to do as a matter of fact if we are going to survive. But it doesn’t have the wherewithal to transform that “what you need to do” into a “what you ought to do.””

    True. And as I said above, I believe that the impersonal, amoral natural process does not have “authority” and cannot oblige you to do anything. Our moral decisions are just that — decisions. Even an absolute moral code cannot “oblige” you to follow it. You must choose to do so.

    “…I have really problems with the claim that you can’t get an ought from an is…”

    Could you explain why?

    jasonng wrote:
    “Where does this conscience fit into the grand scheme of things? Darwinism is based on random mutation and natural selection. In other words, it’s about getting the best survival traits and making sure you survive, even if that means getting rid of others that would hinder your survival.”

    And one of the best survival traits in humans is the conscience. The conscience is crucial in allowing us to live harmoniously in societies, and humans have survived better in societies than on their own since time immemorial.

    “Do you realize how absurd you’re sounding? Christianity recognizes the existance of sin and Christians are obliged to turn AWAY from sinful behaviour. Darwinist philosophy has no concept of right or wrong, and in fact obliges anyone who believes in it to fight for one’s survival at essentially any cost.”

    Which of us is being absurd? Look at my absurd “gravitationist” example. How is it logically any different from your claims about Darwinism?

    If the widespread existence of sin does not require a Christian to promote sin, why does the widespread existence of evolutionary struggle require a “Darwinist” to promote evolutionary struggle. If “is” does not imply “ought” in the former case, why should it in the latter?

    “Darwin realized that no one would actually thought about it would accept the implications of true Darwinist philosophy. He certainly didn’t want to accept it either, but he honestly thought it was true at the time. So, naturally he had to tone it down a little for it to gain wide acceptance.”

    The “devil’s chaplain” quote is from a private letter to Hooker and has nothing to do with “toning down” the message for a wider audience.

  27. What on earth are y’all talking about?

    What does the theory of evolution by natural selection have to do with morality? I mean there must be a grand total of 2 people on this planet who derive their moral philosophies from evolution.

    Jasonng said: “Yes, but having that as the basis of one’s worldview (inevitable given a strong belief in Darwinism) causes selfishness at the very least and horrible things like eugenics and genocide at the very worst.”

    Ah yes, you got me. I confess. I accept Darwin’s theory of evolution and I am also a closet genocidal maniac.

  28. valerie wrote:

    “See my reply to j above. And keep in mind that the evolutionary origin of our moral sense doesn’t prove that good and evil are illusory, any more than the evolutionary origin of our reasoning ability proves that truth and falsehood are illusory.”

    – You presuppose that a non-cognizant, blind, naturalistic mechanism produced a species of cognizant reasoning beings with all of our longings and propositions, and our apparent wiring to seek out the meaning of our existance, without the input of an intelligence. You have far greater faith than I, valerie. But I understand how this just-so story is the only option for Darwinists.

    valerie wrote:

    “Not true. Honest, sincere Christians disagree among themselves on matters of morality. If they had access to an “absolute objective standard”, these disputes would vanish.”

    – This would be a straw man. It is thoroughly unwarranted to assume that liberty amongst believers on issues of conscience somehow invalidates the notion of an absolute standard. And the fact remains that under a Darwinian belief-system, there is nothing to suggest that morality is actual and not just an illusion projected by our [material-produced] consciences to keep us from destroying one another.

    valerie wrote:

    “Wow, jacktone, I hope that’s not true. If it is, then your morality is really only about pleasing an outside authority, and not about contributing to the well-being of others.
    Many people believe that their morality is utterly dependent on their religion. I like to ask them, “Suppose you came across incontrovertible proof that your God doesn’t exist and that your holy book(s) are a sham. Would you really start killing, stealing, and abusing the elderly? Would you stop treating your spouse and children with respect and affection?””

    – You miss the point. In principle, there is NO REASON to continue contributing to the well being of others, even if we choose to continue to. Again, the “oughtness” which was mentioned earlier. And in principle, there should be no accountability for whatever actions and behavior I choose.

    valerie wrote:

    “My first response is that truth isn’t required to be palatable to humans. Part of being a mature human is in coming to grips with the aspects of reality that don’t conform to your fondest wishes.
    Beyond that, I don’t find Darwinian theory to be a “ghastly reduction.” On the contrary, I think it shows us that we’ve been underestimating the power of “brute matter” all along. Matter has the potential to produce the human mind with all of its best creations: music, science, civilization, morality. The error is not in “reducing” mind to “brute matter”, but rather in labeling as “brute matter” something which is capable of producing these exalted phenomena, along with the rest of the Universe’s wonders.”

    – Complete faith based assumption. I suppose it comes down to a definition of “matter”. Regardless, it would seem to require tremendous faith to believe that DaVinci’s works were designed, but that DaVinci himself was ultimately the product of chance and material processes. Balderdash I say.

    valerie wrote:

    “Actually, natural selection does not “care” about the survival of species. It cares about the propagation of genes, and of the survival of individuals as vehicles for those genes to get into the next generation.
    That aside, there’s no reason that you *have* to worry about the survival of the species, or of yourself, or of your genes. You can choose to commit suicide, for example, or to use birth control and thereby have no children. What natural selection “wants” is not binding on you, which is the point I’m trying to make to jasonng.”

    – Yes, that’s how the narrative goes. And I continue to be amazed at the level of credit and responsibility given to a nebulous unthinking mechanism which thus far has barely been able to demonstrate trivial adaptive physiological change within an existing species. Faith again. Sooo much the “selfish gene” theory fails to account for in human behavior, but that would be a discussion in itself.

    valerie wrote:

    “And one of the best survival traits in humans is the conscience. The conscience is crucial in allowing us to live harmoniously in societies, and humans have survived better in societies than on their own since time immemorial.”

    – And again, the Darwinist would have us believe that this mindless mechanism is responsible [sans intelligent input]for the bevy of complex emotional substance that makes us us and allows us to have these debates about our purpose and meaning. This notion of the mind, the unique self being the result of unguided material processes is a fallacious bottom-up approach that I’m amazed people buy into. It truly smacks of desperation.

    valerie wrote:

    “If the widespread existence of sin does not require a Christian to promote sin, why does the widespread existence of evolutionary struggle require a “Darwinist” to promote evolutionary struggle. If “is” does not imply “ought” in the former case, why should it in the latter?”

    – How is this an even remotely valid comparison? The theological doctrine of the internal spiritual condition of humans to… forgive me if I don’t follow the logic in your assertion here.

  29. Responding to my comment that the struggle for existence is a fact of life, Jasong replied,
    “Yes, but having that as the basis of one’s worldview (inevitable given a strong belief in Darwinism) causes selfishness at the very least and horrible things like eugenics and genocide at the very worst. Darwinism morally justifies those who desire such a worldview and in fact encourages them to look out for themselves in a battle for survival.”

    The struggle for existence is a fact of life, not the basis of my worldview. It doesn’t compel me to embrace eugenics and genocide. What it does mean is that I buy heartworm, flea, and tick preventives for my dogs, and organic pest control stuff for my garden. That’s it, believe me. Do you have a better suggestion? I don’t know how ID theorists see ticks– perhaps they see evidence of multiple designers in competition. I really don’t know. I do know that ticks are nasty– they suck your blood and spread disease.

    I’m a Christian, but I know that religious beliefs with a plan and purpose in life do not guarantee that people will make the right choices. The followers of Osama bin Laden are religiously motivated to murder, maim, burn and poison every man, woman and child in America. All in the name of God.

    And was Darwin a Darwinist? He was never completely atheistic; rather, it seems that he ended up as an agnostic after struggling a long time with the question of faith. So was he a monster, devoid of morals and ethics? He seems to have been a decent person, a loving father and a faithful husband. The tragic death of his beloved young daughter had a big part in his loss of faith. Furthermore, he was vehemently abolitionist, at a time when many Christians defended slavery based on their Biblical worldview.

    Just something to think about.

  30. I don’t want to de-rail this discussion and I certainly don’t want to delve into theology too much, but in direct response to Karen’s post… as a Christian, I would have to assume that you understand the Biblical doctrine of the “Fall” which does an excellent job of explaining a world which groans for it’s redemption – this is where nasty lil critters like Ticks, come into play.

    Some other food for thought – if a Christian is only a Christian because of faith in the ransom sacrifice of Christ, a direct propitiation for Adam’s disobedience (hence Christ being called “the last Adam”), then how is the saving sacrifice of Christ of any value whatsoever if the account of Adam’s fall is a myth? That’s all I’ll say on this topic.

  31. “Sorry, but if Darwin’s narrative is true, then I simply can’t bring myself to really care about anything.”

    ______________________________________________________________________________

    That’s not an impressive ethical system. Perhaps you don’t really mean that. Do you stop at stop signs ONLY because a policeman might be watching? Or do you understand that good laws protect the lives of all humans, and should be obeyed primarily for that reason?

    And what do you make of the parable of the Good Samaritan? Samaritans were not Jewish– they were hated religious outsiders, and their compromised religion was considered impure. And yet, the Samaritan felt compassion on the suffering victim of the bandits. It was on the basis of the Samaritan’s act of compassion that Jesus made him the hero of the story.

  32. Karen, this is an if… then… statement, so happens that I don’t believe it at all.

    Valerie, as Scott said, you miss the point. This isn’t just my morality, this is a fundamental Christian doctrine and integral to this is the second greatest comandment “to love your neighbor as yourself”. This gives me a solid moral framework that is external to myself. And it isn’t about following some ethical prescription, it’s about becoming something different than what I find myself to be – selfish and depraved.

  33. A couple of responses to valerie: you wrote that truth is not required to be palatable to humans. I couldn’t agree more. I would add a couple of thoughts on this, though. There must be something in you which makes the desire for truth and palatability go very much hand in hand, since you seem utterly committed to materialism. are you committed to these views even though you consider them to be unpalatable? Or do they fulfill what for you is the best possible world? The existentialists of the nineteenth and early twentieth century recognized the gross unpalatability of materialism, because the bottom-up explanations of everything fly completely in the face of the simple intuitive experiences of most people with regard to higher values. Most people percieve (in your view they adhere to a delusion) that higher values like love, compassion, beauty, artistry, etc. derive from a higher source. Everything speaks to this intuition. When someone is happy and exhalted, their gait tends to be freer, they are more upright, they tilt their head UPward. When someone is depressed, they are physically drawn down, their head sinks, they look DOWNward. In short, everything, both physical and mental, points to an intuitive awareness of the significance of the archetype “from above” of ” from below”. Incidentally, this does not denigrate matter. It is only the adherence to matter and its constraints and perogatives which disorders the system. It is like if a plant, instead of growing upward toward the light of the sun, were to focus the energy of its growth and development solely in its roots in the lightless soil. Eventually, the plant could not flower any longer.

    also, you wrote that you find the brute forces of matter far from brute, and you think the problem is more that we have given material forces far too LITTLE credit. This is an interesting observation. It feels like a philosophical inversion which moves nothing forward, though. PEople give praise to that which they feel to be responsible for somehting. If God is responsible for life, then praise be to God. If matter is responsible for life, the praise be to matter. You are just worshipping your god. The problem is, that your god cannot produce that which the inner life of the human yearns for more stridently than anything, and that is the continuation of consciousness beyond the bounds of matter. From humanity’s earliest time, we are the only species which, as a part of our basic functioning, have held beliefs about life beyond life. The Darwinian just-so narrative about religion arising out of a fearful need to explain the unexplained falls apart when we see how little the need for such explanations exists even in highly intelligent near-relative primates. The chimp, 95% similar genetically, with complex social system, tool use, etc. does not worship, does not create art. In short, its entire being is fulfilled WITHIN the bounds of matter. The human instinctively steps beyond these bounds. This leap of consciousness does not convincingly arise from a bigger brain.

    third, you wrote that if it were true that extreme materialists really suffered from weakened psyches, then Darwinists would be notably less moral than other members of the population. Note that I said that “the extreme proponents of the most rigid materialism” would suffer from this weakening of their spiritual perceptive capacity. In my view, such materialism is IN NO WAY limited to scientism. I am convinced that a huge number of so-called religious people are really the most staunch materialists. They can hardly envision a thing unless it conforms to a concrete event or structure, or a page in a book. Anything lying outside of the narrow bounds of their particular dogma is rejected without consideration or objectivity. They fail to percieve the magnitude of the spiritual principles of their respective religions, narrowing these sayings into dogmatism and even violence in order to satisfy their inner need to feel superior to others. The list goes on. Such people equally fail to exercise their spiritual legs, and are as cut off as any scientism advocate, from the streams of light and truth which flow from above! Karen’s post about the good Samaritan is so illustrative of this. Christ, who is supposed to be the model for christians, unhesitatingly called the Samaritan superior morally, in spite of his belonging to the ‘wrong’ religion, because Christ was not concerned with creeds, but with truth and compassion. But today, many a so-called Christian unhesitatingly and quite enthusiastically condems the majority of their fellow men, no matter how good and compassionate, to eternal hellfire, because they belong to the wrong religion…

  34. “And one of the best survival traits in humans is the conscience. The conscience is crucial in allowing us to live harmoniously in societies, and humans have survived better in societies than on their own since time immemorial.”

    It seems the conscience was developed with a purpose in mind. The trouble is how does the Darwinist explain how it came into being? We might never know, rendering the Darwinian theory useless in this respect.

    “Which of us is being absurd? Look at my absurd “gravitationist” example. How is it logically any different from your claims about Darwinism?”

    The manufacturing of airplanes is done under the assumption that gravity will keep the airplane from floating away into space. Thus the building of an airplane would not violate one’s belief in that theory.

    “If the widespread existence of sin does not require a Christian to promote sin, why does the widespread existence of evolutionary struggle require a “Darwinist” to promote evolutionary struggle. If “is” does not imply “ought” in the former case, why should it in the latter?”

    The existance of sin obliges Christians to go against sin. Darwinist philosophy obliges humans to seek survival benefits above all else. Your theology is highly mistaken if you think that the existance of sin obliges Christians to purposely sin. Talk to any churchgoing five-year old.

    “The “devil’s chaplain” quote is from a private letter to Hooker and has nothing to do with “toning down” the message for a wider audience.”

    Well for one thing since you obtained access to that letter, it seems it wasn’t very private after all. Secondly, Darwin was a strong Christian for much of his life and thus had the idea of morality imbedded in him. Even though he may have left his belief later on, it would be illogical for him to throw away that concept of morality.

    However these days you’ve got a lot of followers of moral relativism, people just going “who’s to say what’s right or wrong?”, and I believe that is partially due to a Darwinist mindset that morality was in fact just another accidental evolutionary product. This places the ultimate Darwinian goal of survival above that of morality.

    Of course I realize that it’s hard to find a Darwinist that will readily admit that, since most people obviously belief in some degree of morality over survival at all costs. But is this belief consistent with Darwinian philosophy? That’s the real question.

  35. Scott wrote:
    “It is thoroughly unwarranted to assume that liberty amongst believers on issues of conscience somehow invalidates the notion of an absolute standard.”

    I didn’t say that it did. I’m pointing out that sincere Christians don’t have access to an absolute, objective standard of morality, whether it exists or not. If they did, there would be no disputes over morality among them. They are in the same boat as the rest of us, trying to figure out their morality as they go.

    “In principle, there is NO REASON to continue contributing to the well being of others, even if we choose to continue to…”

    I can think of plenty of reasons to continue, none of which depend on the existence of an absolute moral standard:

    1. We care about the well-being of others, and are genuinely happier when we help them.

    2. Society functions better when we are willing to help others.

    3. By helping others, we gain not only the satisfaction of doing so, we also earn their gratitude and affection. This may redound to our benefit when we are in need of help.

    4. Family and work life become more pleasant and less stressful when we are willing to help others.

    etc.

    I enjoy the poetry of Billy Collins. Do I need the justification of some external, absolute aesthetic standard to continue doing so?

    “…it would seem to require tremendous faith to believe that DaVinci’s works were designed, but that DaVinci himself was ultimately the product of chance and material processes. Balderdash I say.”

    All you are saying is that you personally find it difficult to accept, and that therefore those of us who do accept it must be doing so on faith. That’s not the case.

    “How is this an even remotely valid comparison? The theological doctrine of the internal spiritual condition of humans to… forgive me if I don’t follow the logic in your assertion here.”

    See my forthcoming response to jasonng.

  36. Karen: “The struggle for existence is a fact of life, not the basis of my worldview. It doesn’t compel me to embrace eugenics and genocide. What it does mean is that I buy heartworm, flea, and tick preventives for my dogs, and organic pest control stuff for my garden. That’s it, believe me. Do you have a better suggestion?”

    We’re not debating the existance of survival of the fittest. What is of concern is the Darwinist philosophy, which states that even morality developed from evolutionary processes, processes that are inherently self-serving. Who are we to say what’s right and what’s wrong? If someone steals something so they can survive (causing the other’s death), who’s to say, under Darwinism, that it was the wrong thing to do? He/she was simply ensuring survival.

    “And was Darwin a Darwinist? He was never completely atheistic; rather, it seems that he ended up as an agnostic after struggling a long time with the question of faith. So was he a monster, devoid of morals and ethics? He seems to have been a decent person, a loving father and a faithful husband. The tragic death of his beloved young daughter had a big part in his loss of faith. Furthermore, he was vehemently abolitionist, at a time when many Christians defended slavery based on their Biblical worldview.”

    He was a racist nonetheless, and his theory gives justification for that, should he need it. Christianity stresses very strongly that all humans are created equal in that we’re all flawed. Darwinism stresses that the struggle for survival should take precedence over all else, because in the natural world, the strong are meant to live. Comparing moral Darwinists to immoral Christians does nothing to reconcile the glaring differences between the two philosophies.

  37. Dear Valerie,

    I can say something about the is-ought issue later. For the time being, I want us to be on the same page about the issue of Darwinism and ethics. My point, to repeat, is that natural selection can, at most, “prescribe” rules for survival (of whatever the relevant units of selection are), but it can’t explain the oughtness of ethical oughts, it can’t explain why I shouldn’t rape children. Note, I’m not arguing against natural explanation; just against Darwinist accounts of ethics. It seems to me that, if Darwinist accounts of ethics aren’t tenable, and no other candidates appear, then we ARE left with the idea, not only that I have to decide whether to act ethically, but that I have to decide, that is, create or make up, what acting ethically means—that the “oughtness” of the moral ought is as such a pure convention. But do we really want to go that route? Do we really want to say that the claim that we ought not to torture small animals or mutilate prisoners is simply the product of convention?

    Cordially,
    Adrian

  38. Dear Valerie,

    Here’s another way of putting it. “Ought” does not mean: “proven by natural selection to be effective in promoting survival.” Note: I’m talking about the quality of “oughtness” as such.

    As Kant noted, given the modern scientific understanding of nature, you can’t get an “ought” out of the physical “is.” Thus, there are basically two alternatives: “oughtness” is based on something other than nature as modern science—here Darwinistic biology—understands it . . . or “oughtness” is a conventional fiction.

    If the latter, then I think we’re in big trouble, in the sense that we have no rational argument against disregarding prohibitions against horrendous acts (=torture, rape, genocide, etc.) if circumstances seem to require it.

    Cordially,
    Adrian

  39. tinabrewer asks:
    “are you committed to these [materialist] views even though you consider them to be unpalatable? Or do they fulfill what for you is the best possible world?”

    Hi Tina,
    I would say neither. Our world is certainly not the best possible world, and it could definitely be improved, but I don’t find it unpalatable.

    “In short, everything, both physical and mental, points to an intuitive awareness of the significance of the archetype “from above” of ” from below”.”

    George Lakoff writes convincingly of the “embodied mind”, his concept that the more abstract functions of the human mind are built on lower-level sensorimotor and emotional functions. He shows that the evidence of this is fossilized in our language: we “under stand” certain things; others go “over our heads”, or “beyond us”. To “comprehend” means literally to “grasp completely”. When we understand something we say “I see”. Once you start noticing these, you’ll see that they are quite pervasive. Even when the words themselves seem to be abstract, you’ll see by examining the etymology that they are founded on bodily or spatial metaphors.

    When we say that something is a bottom-up explanation, we simply mean that the higher levels of the explanation rest on the lower levels, just as a building does. I’m afraid I don’t read anything more into it than that.

    “…the bottom-up explanations of everything fly completely in the face of the simple intuitive experiences of most people with regard to higher values.”

    That’s true, but intuition on its own has a pretty poor track record for revealing truth. The genius of science is that it harnesses the power of intuition without getting carried away by it.

    “…you wrote that you find the brute forces of matter far from brute, and you think the problem is more that we have given material forces far too LITTLE credit…You are just worshipping your god.”

    I don’t *worship* matter, by any means. But the common intuition that simple, “mindless” matter cannot generate nuanced behavior when combined in complex ways is false. If we didn’t already know it was true, we’d find it hard to believe that a computer can beat a grandmaster at chess. After all, a computer is essentially just a complicated interconnection of mindless transistors.

    “The problem is, that your god cannot produce that which the inner life of the human yearns for more stridently than anything, and that is the continuation of consciousness beyond the bounds of matter.”

    Again, truth is not obliged to conform to our desires.

    “From humanity’s earliest time, we are the only species which, as a part of our basic functioning, have held beliefs about life beyond life. The Darwinian just-so narrative about religion arising out of a fearful need to explain the unexplained falls apart when we see how little the need for such explanations exists even in highly intelligent near-relative primates.”

    Our understanding of religion’s evolutionary underpinnings is still in its infancy, because religion has been a taboo subject for so long. Daniel Dennett’s new book is aimed largely at “breaking the ice” and encouraging scientists to turn their focus to religion.

    Dennett raises the question of whether religion can exist apart from language. If not, then its absence among intelligent primates makes sense.

  40. jasonng wrote:
    “The trouble is how does the Darwinist explain how [conscience] came into being? We might never know, rendering the Darwinian theory useless in this respect.”

    For excellent explanations of how Darwinian theory applies to the origin of conscience, cooperation, and virtue, see Robert Wright’s “Nonzero” and “The Moral Animal”, Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate”, and Matt Ridley’s “The Origins of Virtue”. The fundamental idea is that conscience is an adaptation like any other, giving its possessors an advantage in getting their genes into future generations.

    “The manufacturing of airplanes is done under the assumption that gravity will keep the airplane from floating away into space. Thus the building of an airplane would not violate one’s belief in that theory.”

    That’s right. The airplane counteracts the force of gravity, but the airplane’s designers can continue to believe in gravitational theory with perfect consistency. In exactly the same way, a Darwinian can choose to commit suicide, use birth control, sacrifice her life for a total stranger, etc., and still believe in Darwinian theory with perfect consistency. Darwinian theory says that some individuals will successfully reproduce and that others will not. It does not oblige us to place ourselves in one group or the other. Darwinian theory, like other scientific theories, is *descriptive*, not *normative*.

    “Your theology is highly mistaken if you think that the existance of sin obliges Christians to purposely sin.”

    If you’ve been reading my comments with any care at all, you’ll know that I present that as an example of an absurdity. Christian doctrine obviously does not advocate sin. Yet the same logic you use to claim that Darwinian theory advocates cut-throat, self-centered behavior can be applied to Christianity, leading to the absurd conclusion that Christians are obligated to promote sin. Thus I conclude that your logic is flawed.

    Christians acknowledge the widespread existence of sin. Yet they believe that they should not sin, and that they should help others to avoid sin. They fight sin, while acknowledging its continued widespread existence. There is no inconsistency. Recognizing the existence of sin does not obligate a Christian to promote it.

    Darwinians acknowledge the struggle for existence. They nevertheless continue to hold moral standards. Those moral standards sometimes cause them to do things that do not enhance their survival or increase the likelihood of getting their genes into future generations. Yet they acknowledge that natural selection continues to operate. There is no inconsistency. Recognizing natural selection does not obligate a Darwinian to promote her own survival or reproductive success.

    “Well for one thing since you obtained access to that letter, it seems it wasn’t very private after all.”

    The letter wasn’t published until five years after Darwin’s death. Don’t you think Darwin would have managed to get the word out sooner if that was his purpose?

    Here is Darwin writing to Asa Gray:
    “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars.”

    All of the evidence is consistent with his genuine revulsion at the darker aspects of natural selection.

    “Even though he may have left his belief later on, it would be illogical for him to throw away that concept of morality.”

    If it was illogical for Darwin to abandon morality, why are you claiming that it is illogical for modern Darwinians to *maintain* morality?

    “Darwinism stresses that the struggle for survival should take precedence over all else, because in the natural world, the strong are meant to live.”

    Darwinian theory says nothing about what *should* take precedence, or who is *meant* to live. Those are normative statements which are outside the scope of a descriptive theory.

  41. Hi Valerie. I am not at all surprised that a computer can beat a human at chess. The human brain, and the intellect which is its by-product, are quite computer-like in many way. The choices involved in successfully winning a chess match are strictly material and explicable in terms of rules, odds, etc. They do not in any way demand understandings which derive from the “higher octave” of human value which I ascribe to the soul or spirit, such as beauty, truth, compassion, prayer, etc.

    to backtrack: I agree with your analysis of language in the sense that higher, more abstract words are built on bodily or spatial concepts. To me this seems quite organic and natural, and in no way shows that these abstractions derive from lower sources. I would describe my beliefs as a bit gnostic “as above, so below” :the higher gives birth to the lower, which reflects it. If the body has an eye which allows it to bring in sensory information, so the soul must have an eye of its own substance and function which allows it to have “insight” or the sight of the inner man.

    when I said that you are worshipping your god, I meant it figuratively! I was trying to liken worship to the giving of homage to that which we believe has greatest value. I guess in a sense this is what I believe worship should consist of: the conscious allegiance to the highest thing. For a materialist, perhaps that highest thing is matter and its alleged by-products. Thus the term worship.

    with regard to the question of the desire to live beyond matter, or life after life, nothing more can really be said. I know I am never going to convince a committed materialist of this. I know from personal experience that I have experienced many instances of precognitive awareness, etc. which seem to point to the existence of some part of me which can know independent of the physical senses. I suppose you would assume I am lying about these events, but i can only respond that I am not and leave it at that.

    THanks again, Tina

  42. Moderators, could you check to see if my latest reply to jasonng got caught by the spam filter?
    Thanks,
    Valerie

    “…that the “oughtness” of the moral ought is as such a pure convention. But do we really want to go that route?”

    Whether we want to “go that route” is independent of whether morality is a pure convention. Interestingly, Irving Kristol (at least at one point in his life) seemed to believe that religion was bogus, but that we should keep it around to pacify the masses and maintain social order. He felt that only the intellectual elites were equipped to grapple with a nonreligious worldview.

    “Do we really want to say that the claim that we ought not to torture small animals or mutilate prisoners is simply the product of convention?”

    You seem to be using the word “convention” to mean a purely arbitrary set of morals. But our morals cannot be consciously revised at will. They are not purely arbitrary. They are constrained by our evolutionary past and our need to coexist within human society. This is why moral conventions have so much in common the world over.

    Note that asserting the existence of an absolute standard does not solve the problem of moral conflict. The Pakistani men who kill their sisters in defense of the family’s “honor” believe they are acting in accordance with an absolute moral standard. So do the Christians who condemn these honor killings.

    “Ought” does not mean: “proven by natural selection to be effective in promoting survival.”

    I agree. We should not model our morality on the operation of natural selection. Nevertheless, natural selection happens to be largely responsible for creating our moral sense.

    “If the latter, then I think we’re in big trouble, in the sense that we have no rational argument against disregarding prohibitions against horrendous acts (=torture, rape, genocide, etc.) if circumstances seem to require it.”

    Not to worry. Disbelievers in an absolute moral standard have shown themselves to possess a morality which is quite in line with that of modern society, particularly in regard to things like torture (with the exception of the Bush administration), rape, and genocide.

    And there is no rational argument against those things even if there *is* an absolute moral standard. What about the mere existence of an absolute standard compels us to honor it?

    Morality and values have always ultimately boiled down to choice and personal conviction.

    Regards,
    Valerie

  43. valerie: “keep in mind that the evolutionary origin of our moral sense doesn’t prove that good and evil are illusory, any more than the evolutionary origin of our reasoning ability proves that truth and falsehood are illusory”

    We’re not talking about “an evolutionary origin” (which allows of teleology). We’re talking specifically about a Darwinian (materialist) evolutionary origin, in which our moral sense came about by blind/purposeless/dumb forces acting on inert matter. If that were possible, then good and evil, as well as truth and falsity, would, indeed, be illusory: It’s all just atoms bouncing around.

    me: “How does one decide what ought to be?”

    valerie: “We search our consciences, we think about it, and we listen to what others have to say about it. We reach conclusions that may differ from the sincerely held conclusions of others.”

    “I can think of plenty of reasons to continue [contributing to the well being of others], none of which depend on the existence of an absolute moral standard: 1. We care about the well-being of others, and are genuinely happier when we help them. 2. Society functions better when we are willing to help others. 3. By helping others, we gain not only the satisfaction of doing so, we also earn their gratitude and affection. This may rebound to our benefit when we are in need of help. 4. Family and work life become more pleasant and less stressful when we are willing to help others.”

    “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness; only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives… Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress toward more pain. The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love and justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy — everything… There will be no loyalty, except loyalty toward the Party. There will be no love, except love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science. When we are omnipotent we shall have no more need of science. There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no employment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”

    Why is this not what ought to be? Why is this evil? (The Devil’s advocate would ask.)

    [It's never too late for it to be (Orwell's) 1984.]

  44. Note: In the comment above, the paragraph that begins “The Party seeks…” is the start of my second reply. (It’s not a quote from valerie.) ;-)

  45. “The fundamental idea is that conscience is an adaptation like any other, giving its possessors an advantage in getting their genes into future generations.”

    Since the conscience is said to be just an adaptation like any other, it is a trait that was naturally selected to carry survival benefits. Because of this, even the conscience is intended to be used mainly for one’s survival. Nothing prevents us from using it to help other people, all I’m saying is that doing so would go against Darwinian logic.

    “That’s right. The airplane counteracts the force of gravity, but the airplane’s designers can continue to believe in gravitational theory with perfect consistency. In exactly the same way, a Darwinian can choose to commit suicide, use birth control, sacrifice her life for a total stranger, etc., and still believe in Darwinian theory with perfect consistency. Darwinian theory says that some individuals will successfully reproduce and that others will not. It does not oblige us to place ourselves in one group or the other. Darwinian theory, like other scientific theories, is *descriptive*, not *normative*.”

    Of course it’s possible for a Darwinist to go against his/her philosophy by doing something detrimental to their own being, but we’re not arguing about what a Darwinist obviously can do, but what the philosophy suggests he/she does, which is, of course, survive.

    “If you’ve been reading my comments with any care at all, you’ll know that I present that as an example of an absurdity. Christian doctrine obviously does not advocate sin. Yet the same logic you use to claim that Darwinian theory advocates cut-throat, self-centered behavior can be applied to Christianity, leading to the absurd conclusion that Christians are obligated to promote sin. Thus I conclude that your logic is flawed.”

    Christian philosophy involves self-sacrifice and avoiding sinful behaviour. Darwinist philosophy involves ensuring one’s survival. It’s entirely possible for the follower of one to act like a follower of the other, but the point is the ideal Christian is self-sacrificing, and the ideal Darwinist is self-serving. We can honestly say that neither of those exist in great quantities.

    You literally re-invented Christian theology to say that it advocates sin. I don’t need to re-invent Darwinism to say that it advocates survival of the fittest.

    “Christians acknowledge the widespread existence of sin. Yet they believe that they should not sin, and that they should help others to avoid sin. They fight sin, while acknowledging its continued widespread existence. There is no inconsistency. Recognizing the existence of sin does not obligate a Christian to promote it.”

    I get your point, but my point is that ideally Christians should try to sin as little as possible. We all acknowledge survival of the fittest as a fact of life, but Darwinist philosophy places it above all things, even the conscience, the so-called internal moral compass, was a product of this.

    “Darwinians acknowledge the struggle for existence. They nevertheless continue to hold moral standards. Those moral standards sometimes cause them to do things that do not enhance their survival or increase the likelihood of getting their genes into future generations. Yet they acknowledge that natural selection continues to operate. There is no inconsistency. Recognizing natural selection does not obligate a Darwinian to promote her own survival or reproductive success.”

    It’s certain possible for a strict Darwinist to go against the philosophy and help other people to their own detriment, but we’re not talking about what they can do, we’re talking about what Darwinist philosophy says they should do. There’s nothing in Darwinism that tells us to “love our neighbour”, but everything in Darwinism tells us to survive.

    “All of the evidence is consistent with his genuine revulsion at the darker aspects of natural selection.”

    This was his own moral objection to certain aspects of Darwinism. Most Darwinists take this route. Some don’t, and those that don’t aren’t doing anything that contracts their philosophy.

    “If it was illogical for Darwin to abandon morality, why are you claiming that it is illogical for modern Darwinians to *maintain* morality?”

    As a person who believes that there is more to morality than as yet another evolutionary product, I don’t find it illogical for any human to be moral. Darwinist philosophy says nothing about morality, however, and that leads to the ultimate question, “Who’s to decide what’s right or wrong?”

    “Darwinian theory says nothing about what *should* take precedence, or who is *meant* to live. Those are normative statements which are outside the scope of a descriptive theory.”

    The scientific theory states that certain traits will cause some organisms to survive and some to die off. It’s a pretty obvious statement when you look at real life, and it’s true today, evident through competition in the human world. However a theory with such grand claims naturally carries philosophical implications. Leo Tolstoy was talking about those implications in his letter. He was rightfully concerned that Darwinism carried a philosophy that is inseparable from the scientific theory, and that philosophy has profound implications on how we live our lives. Darwinism provides no moral guidance, and says that we are here because we were lucky accidents, beings little different from animals, with no purpose in mind when we were created.

  46. j wrote:
    “We’re not talking about “an evolutionary origin” (which allows of teleology). We’re talking specifically about a Darwinian (materialist) evolutionary origin, in which our moral sense came about by blind/purposeless/dumb forces acting on inert matter. If that were possible, then good and evil, as well as truth and falsity, would, indeed, be illusory: It’s all just atoms bouncing around.”

    If you consider everything that reduces to atoms (and other particles, and energy) “bouncing around” to be illusory, then yes, good and evil are illusory. But by that criterion the wetness of water and the solidity of rock are also illusory.

    Is money illusory? Most of my money is nothing more than bits on the disk drives of computers scattered across the country. Yet I can “trade” those insubstantial bits for an elaborate machine that took hundreds of hours to put together, for 100 acres of Nebraska farmland, for a meal in a strange city, or for political favors from a corrupt politician. You might argue that it’s illusory, but to me, anything with that kind of power is *real*.

    The same goes for morality.

    (By the way, thanks for the attempted spelling correction, but the word really is “redound”, not “rebound”.)

    “Why is this [the 1984 excerpt] not what ought to be? Why is this evil? (The Devil’s advocate would ask.)”

    It’s evil because we define it that way. Thankfully, most of our fellow humans agree with our definition, and are motivated to keep such a dismal scenario from coming to pass.

    Would it be nice if there truly were an absolute moral code, known to everyone, which everyone was willing to obey and which was the best code possible for promoting universal happiness? Sure. But reality has a way of frustrating our desires.

    I’ll repeat: even if there *is* an absolute moral code, we don’t know what it is and sincere people cannot agree on its precepts. Therefore we must all use our own judgment in deciding what is moral, or in deciding who we will allow to dictate our morals to us.

  47. jasonng wrote:
    “Nothing prevents us from using [the conscience] to help other people, all I’m saying is that doing so would go against Darwinian logic.”

    You seem to be confused here. The reason that conscience was selected and retained by evolution was because we *do* use it to help other people, not in spite of that. Helping other people (within certain limits) improves our ability to get our genes into the next generation. There’s no either-or here — we help others and help our genes at the same time.

    Note that there’s nothing cynical about this. Our consciences cause us to genuinely want to help other people, with no conscious expectation of a “payoff”. It’s just that evolution has tailored our consciences to benefit our own genes.

    In other words, causing us to genuinely want to help other people via our consciences is one of our genes’ ways of getting us to help them reproduce.

    Furthermore, you seem to believe that “Darwinian logic” requires us to promote our own survival. You’re forgetting that natural selection not only involves the survival and reproduction of the fittest, it also requires the death of the less fit. How do we know whether we’re “supposed” to be one of the survivors, rather than one of the dead-ends? If we had to act in accordance with what “Darwinian philosophy” requires, wouldn’t we need to know which category we fall into?

    “…the ideal Christian is self-sacrificing, and the ideal Darwinist is self-serving.”

    You’re making the same errors here. Darwinian theory is descriptive, not normative, so there *is* no “ideal”. Being “self-serving” in the context of human society may be detrimental to one’s genes, not advantageous. Our genes’ interests do not always coincide with ours. And Darwinian theory “requires” death as well as survival.

    “You literally re-invented Christian theology to say that it advocates sin. I don’t need to re-invent Darwinism to say that it advocates survival of the fittest.”

    I didn’t reinvent Christian theology. I applied your logic to it and showed that it leads to an absurdity. And “Darwinism” does not *advocate* survival of the fittest. It simply reports that the fittest survive, on average. Remember, it is a scientific theory, purely descriptive.

    “…a theory with such grand claims naturally carries philosophical implications.”

    It does. Just not the moral implications you’re attributing to it.

    “[Tolstoy] was rightfully concerned that Darwinism carried a philosophy that is inseparable from the scientific theory…”

    Earlier you admitted that most (practically all, in reality) Darwinians do not hold what you consider to be Darwinian morals. If most Darwinians can so easily separate the scientific theory from what you call the Darwinian philosophy, how can you argue that they are inseparable?

    “Darwinism provides no moral guidance…”

    True. Morals cannot come from a purely descriptive theory.

    “…and says that we are here because we were lucky accidents…”

    Yes. Think about it — every one of your ancestors had to survive and reproduce successfully. Then a particular sperm and egg had to meet to produce you. Pretty lucky.

    “beings little different from animals…”

    Not just “little different from animals”. We *are* animals, but with some unique qualities.

    “…with no purpose in mind when we were created.”

    Yes. Purpose, like morality, is something we must define for ourselves.

  48. Valerie: “It’s just that evolution has tailored our consciences to benefit our own genes.”

    The chance of forming a single functional protein (which requires vastly sophisticated information and an information-processing system) by purely materialistic means, exceeds the probabilistic resources of the universe. The notion that such a process could “tailor our consciences” requires an absurd leap of faith in vanishingly-small probabilities.

    Valerie: “Purpose, like morality, is something we must define for ourselves.”

    In other words, purpose and morality are relative. This is a truth claim about the nature of purpose and morality. If this truth claim is true, there is no reason why anyone should take it seriously, since it must be relative.

    My definition of purpose and morality includes the claim that your definition of purpose and morality is false.

  49. GilDodgen wrote:
    “The chance of forming a single functional protein (which requires vastly sophisticated information and an information-processing system) by purely materialistic means, exceeds the probabilistic resources of the universe. The notion that such a process could “tailor our consciences” requires an absurd leap of faith in vanishingly-small probabilities.”

    You’re right that the chance of randomly forming a single functional protein *all at once* from amino acids is vanishingly small, but this is not the problem faced by evolution. Evolution is a tinkerer, not a ground-up designer, whether we’re talking about protein formation or brain modification.

    I wrote:
    “Purpose, like morality, is something we must define for ourselves.”

    Gil wrote:
    “In other words, purpose and morality are relative. This is a truth claim about the nature of purpose and morality. If this truth claim is true, there is no reason why anyone should take it seriously, since it must be relative.”

    Sorry, Gil, but your logic doesn’t hold up.

    Let A stand for purpose, B for morality, and C for the claim “A and B are relative”. You claim that if C is true, C must be relative. But if A and B are relative, then C is absolutely true, because “A is relative” is absolutely true and “B is relative” is also absolutely true.

    I think the argument you were trying to make was
    1) Let A be the claim “truth is relative”.
    2) If A is true, it must be relative, to avoid contradicting itself. But if A is relative, then not all truths are relative, which contradicts A.
    3) Therefore A must be false, and truth is not relative.

    The only problem is that I’m not claiming that truth is relative. I’m only claiming that purpose and morality are relative, so the second argument doesn’t apply.

    “My definition of purpose and morality includes the claim that your definition of purpose and morality is false.”

    I’m not sure what you’re trying to say. I didn’t define purpose and morality; I simply said that they are relative, so there *is* no definition that you can claim is false. Secondly, definitions can’t be true or false; a definition merely anchors a term to a specified concept. Third, how can a definition include a truth claim?

    Were you trying to define purpose and morality to exclude purpose and morality as defined by me?

  50. Dear Valerie,

    With all due respect, you’re missing my point.

    The point is this: while choice plays a role in morality (that’s a truism), this choice isn’t blind. It follows on reasons. The reasons can be right—and they can also be wrong (=your example of honor killing). We need to use our brains to find out which is which. Natural selection may have something to do with our developing a moral sense, but it cannot ground “oughts” as such, better, it cannot ground “ought nots”: it cannot provide an objective reason why, if we could get away with it, we shouldn’t do something even terribly wrong.

    It may be that we need a notion of moral absolutes, at least negative ones, if we are going to maintain that moral action is reasonable action, and not just blind choice.

    Of course, you might insist that our reaons for moral action are themselves all completely a matter of choice, but then what guides the choice? It would have to be something non-rational. So who is claiming that convention=the arbitrary here?

    Valerie, I am going to be bowing out of the conversation at this point, but I would like to leave you with this: not all of your interlocutors argue skfillfully, but you seem to be bent on not understanding the deeper concerns that they are raising underneath their inadequate arguments. It seems to me that holding a position intelligently means understanding the objections to it—not just agilely dodging them while giving the impression that one is completely puzzled as to how anyone could be so benighted as to raise them.

    Valeto,
    Adrian

  51. Valerie,

    When j wrote:

    “Why is this [the 1984 excerpt] not what ought to be? Why is this evil? (The Devil’s advocate would ask.)”

    You responded with:

    “It’s evil because we define it that way. Thankfully, most of our fellow humans agree with our definition, and are motivated to keep such a dismal scenario from coming to pass.”

    This kind of statement from moral relativists has always puzzled me. Isn’t the qualification “dismal” just as subjective as “evil”? Isn’t one reason we think things are evil is because they are dismal? If so, what have we to be thankful about? If most of our fellow citizens were motivated to pursue the 1984 scenario, it would be because they thought the scenario was good rather than evil, delightful rather than dismal. And since these qualities are subjectively defined, the 1984 scenario would in fact be good and delightful because they thought it so. Then everyone would be thankful that they avoided the dismal non-1984 scenario.

    If the qualification “dismal” has some level of objective significance beyond our subjective preferences, then I can see how it would make sense to say that we avoided a dismal fate by correctly defining evil (that is, by defining evil in light of what is objectively dismal). Otherwise, what are we thankful for? That we arbitrarily defined the dismal and evil as one thing rather than another?

    In fact, isn’t one way to avoid a dismal fate merely to redefine it as non-dismal? Since good, evil and dismal are arbitrary subjective definitions, why be upset if the 1984 situation came about, or care one way or another if it does? If it happens, we can simply subjectively redefine the 1984 situation as good and be happy about it.

    cheers,
    Dave T.

  52. Adrian writes:
    “The point is this: while choice plays a role in morality (that’s a truism), this choice isn’t blind. It follows on reasons. The reasons can be right—and they can also be wrong (=your example of honor killing).”

    Fair enough, as long as we acknowledge that the honor killers may sincerely believe that their reasons are right, and ours are wrong, abhorrent as that might seem to us. If we want to assert that our reasons are right, we need to make a case for our viewpoint.

    “We need to use our brains to find out which is which. Natural selection may have something to do with our developing a moral sense, but it cannot ground “oughts” as such, better, it cannot ground “ought nots”: it cannot provide an objective reason why, if we could get away with it, we shouldn’t do something even terribly wrong.”

    Don’t you think it’s a good idea not to do anything we personally think is terribly wrong, whether or not there is an absolute standard to confirm our judgment?

    I’m also not sure that absolute moral standards gain you the grounding that you want, unless they are universally known and recognized as worthy of being followed. The question is, how do we reliably come to know them, and how do we persuade people to follow them once they are known?

    Individuals, religious traditions, and philosophers who try to come up with absolute standards arrive at different answers. How do we judge who is correct, or if there even *are* absolute standards?

    Some people suggest that morality is defined by God. How do we find out what his definitions are if he’s not willing to show us unambiguously? Suppose that his defined morality does not accord with our moral intuitions — for example, what if God wants us to perform child sacrifices? Do we follow our consciences and defy God, or do we acquiesce while believing that we are doing an evil thing?

    “It may be that we need a notion of moral absolutes, at least negative ones, if we are going to maintain that moral action is reasonable action, and not just blind choice.”

    Are you saying that we should hold fast to the idea of moral absolutes, even if we don’t really believe they exist? Or are you saying that there is a case to be made for the existence of moral absolutes? If the latter, how do you demonstrate their reality?

    “…not all of your interlocutors argue skfillfully, but you seem to be bent on not understanding the deeper concerns that they are raising underneath their inadequate arguments.”

    I’m doing my best to understand their objections. If you see me missing the point, please step in and show me what you think the correct interpretation is.

    “It seems to me that holding a position intelligently means understanding the objections to it…”

    I agree, which is why I’m hanging out here rather than on Panda’s Thumb, where I’m less likely to hear those objections.

    “…not just agilely dodging them while giving the impression that one is completely puzzled as to how anyone could be so benighted as to raise them.”

    I reread the thread to see if I could find instances where I dodge objections (or appear to dodge them), and I’m afraid I can’t see them. Please point them out to me, as I certainly want to address all of the objections that are raised.

    Regards,
    Valerie

  53. IF our behaviors are determined purely by the biological machinery of our brains, then even the vilest acts are no more worthy of blame or condemnation than the mechanical failure of an engine.

    Some papers I strongly recommend that valerie read:

    http://www.str.org/site/News2?.....38;id=5706
    http://boundless.org/features/a0000901.html
    http://www.arn.org/ftissues/ft.....hnson.html
    http://www.str.org/site/News2?.....38;id=5474

  54. taciturnus asks:
    “Isn’t the qualification “dismal” just as subjective as “evil”? Isn’t one reason we think things are evil is because they are dismal?”

    Hi Dave,
    ‘Yes’ to both questions.

    “If so, what have we to be thankful about?”

    We can be thankful that others share our ideas of good and evil to a significant degree. Otherwise they would be motivated to promote what we consider evil, and to suppress what we consider good. We would constantly be at cross-purposes with them.

    “If most of our fellow citizens were motivated to pursue the 1984 scenario, it would be because they thought the scenario was good rather than evil, delightful rather than dismal. And since these qualities are subjectively defined, the 1984 scenario would in fact be good and delightful because they thought it so.”

    Good and delightful to *them*, yes (although they would need some strange wiring in their brains to enable them to find such a scenario delightful). It would remain dismal and evil to us.

    “Then everyone would be thankful that they avoided the dismal non-1984 scenario.”

    Not everyone — just the ones who found the 1984 scenario delightful and good.

    “If the qualification “dismal” has some level of objective significance beyond our subjective preferences, then I can see how it would make sense to say that we avoided a dismal fate by correctly defining evil (that is, by defining evil in light of what is objectively dismal).”

    Yes, although that raises an interesting question: what if our subjective sense of dismalness and delightfulness were different from the objective standard? What does it even mean to have an objective standard for these things? They seem inherently subjective: something is delightful because it produces delight, a quintessentially subjective experience.

    “Otherwise, what are we thankful for? That we arbitrarily defined the dismal and evil as one thing rather than another?”

    No. The label itself is not significant. The subjective experience is, and the subjective experience cannot be changed by simply applying a different name to it. It is not arbitrary, though it may differ from person to person.

    “In fact, isn’t one way to avoid a dismal fate merely to redefine it as non-dismal? Since good, evil and dismal are arbitrary subjective definitions, why be upset if the 1984 situation came about, or care one way or another if it does? If it happens, we can simply subjectively redefine the 1984 situation as good and be happy about it.”

    Again, “subjective” does not mean “arbitrary”, and changing the labels does not change the subjective experience. We can no more flip a “mental switch” and suddenly experience a formerly dismal scenario as delightful, than we can flip a “perceptual switch” and begin seeing green as red.

    Regards,
    Valerie

  55. Valerie,

    Since Adrian has bowed out of the conversation, I’ll grab the baton and answer your questions, if that is acceptable.

    “I’m also not sure that absolute moral standards gain you the grounding that you want, unless they are universally known and recognized as worthy of being followed. The question is, how do we reliably come to know them, and how do we persuade people to follow them once they are known?

    Individuals, religious traditions, and philosophers who try to come up with absolute standards arrive at different answers. How do we judge who is correct, or if there even *are* absolute standards?”

    In making the case for absolute standards, the first thing that we must decide is whether things like misery and frustration on the one hand, and delightfulness and satisfaction on the other hand, are empirical facts. I submit that all four of these things are attested to by experience. More than that, they are not subjective. Frustration doesn’t go away merely by choosing to define a frustrating situation as satisfying. Neither does misery go away by defining a miserable situation as delightful. The same goes for delightfulness and satisfaction. (This, btw, was my point in the earlier post with respect to “dismal”.)

    Now if we don’t agree that misery, etc. are empirical facts then I can stop right now, because my case depends on it. Do we agree that the four things I listed are empirically grounded and objective?

    Dave T.

  56. Valerie,

    Our last two posts crossed. I see that we are using the words “subjective” and “arbitrary” with different meanings.

    As I understand the way you use these words, the point I am making is that misery, frustration, delightfulness and satisfaction do not change by arbitrary decision. But they are subjective, meaning that they are an expression of a the state of an individual, and may be different between individuals.

    Dave T.

  57. Hi Scott,

    Thanks for the URLs. I’ll read the papers and report back.

    taciturnus wrote:
    “Since Adrian has bowed out of the conversation, I’ll grab the baton and answer your questions, if that is acceptable.”

    Please do.

    “In making the case for absolute standards, the first thing that we must decide is whether things like misery and frustration on the one hand, and delightfulness and satisfaction on the other hand, are empirical facts. I submit that all four of these things are attested to by experience. More than that, they are not subjective. Frustration doesn’t go away merely by choosing to define a frustrating situation as satisfying. Neither does misery go away by defining a miserable situation as delightful. The same goes for delightfulness and satisfaction. (This, btw, was my point in the earlier post with respect to “dismal”.)”

    I think I see the problem. For you, something that can’t be defined away isn’t subjective. For me, something is subjective if it is experienced internally, with the experience being inaccessible to others. The particular contours of my hunger (haven’t had breakfast yet) are not available to you, and though we may suspect that you have similar sensations when hungry, we’ll never know for sure. You can’t “feel” my hunger and compare it to yours. To me, that makes the sensation of hunger subjective, even though we can’t “define” ourselves as satiated and make the hunger go away.

  58. “As I understand the way you use these words, the point I am making is that misery, frustration, delightfulness and satisfaction do not change by arbitrary decision. But they are subjective, meaning that they are an expression of a the state of an individual, and may be different between individuals.”

    I’m with you so far.

  59. Why does everyone here seem to think that there is a philosophy that goes with a belief in Darwinian evolution? There most certainly is not. Whether it is a material world or not has little to no impact on the importance of morality in human society. Human society cannot exist without morality. Morality has “evolved” as societies have grown more and more complex, but it never goes away. Whether good and evil are terms for an objective reality or a subjective one does not matter. The fact is that good and evil do exist in human society and necessarily so.

  60. Dear Taciturnus,

    I’m glad you showed up.

    Thanks for taking up the baton—you’re much better than I am at this.

    Adrian

  61. Valerie,

    To save space, I’m going to define a couple of terms. Again, this is merely a definition at this point, a shorthand for states that we agree are real yet subjective:

    “Misery” is defined as “The subjective state of misery and frustration”. “Happiness” is defined as “The subjective state of delightfulness and satisfaction.”

    Now I am going to make an empirical argument that, due to our common human nature, misery and happiness involve certain elements that are common to everyone.
    There may be more elements to misery and happiness than I mention at this point, even elements that are peculiar to individuals, but the point for now is that happiness and misery at include at leaste these minimum elements.

    One of these common elements of misery is hunger. By hunger I don’t mean the subjective feeling of hunger but the bodily state of not having sufficient nourishment. I don’t experience your feeling of hunger and you don’t mine, but it is objectively true that we both need food. To the extent that we don’t get sufficient food, we are miserable, and to the extent that we do get sufficient food, we are happy. The same argument can be made for the common elements of clothing and shelter.

    Are we still in agreement?

    Dave T.

  62. I am reading a lot of nonsense here. There simply is no objective definition of morality. What humans consider moral varies in time and in space. If you were a member of a canibalistic tribe in some far away jungle, it might be immoral for you not to eat your grandmother. That’s just the agreement these people made among themselves, perhaps based on their religious believes. There are numerous religions, all with different morals, but with a certain degree of overlap. Perhaps the truth is the intersection of many independent lies? Anyhow, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the scientific theory of evolution. Believe it or not, your ancestors were monkeys, and that fact determines to a large extent our way of thinking and our ideas about morality, whether you like it or not. Wait until we meet alien intelligent live, then we really can test some of the theories anout the origin of morality (assuming the aliens are nice enough not to wipe us out before we get the chance).

  63. Raevmo,

    “Believe it or not, your ancestors were monkeys, and that fact determines to a large extent our way of thinking and our ideas about morality, whether you like it or not.”

    And the conclusion from this is…. that therefore our ideas about morality have no rational foundation?

    Did the fact that our ancestors were monkeys also determine to a large extent our way of thinking about evolution and our ideas about natural selection?

    Cheers,
    Dave T.

  64. Dave T said:

    “And the conclusion from this is…. that therefore our ideas about morality have no rational foundation?

    Did the fact that our ancestors were monkeys also determine to a large extent our way of thinking about evolution and our ideas about natural selection?”

    What I am trying to say is that the social fabric of human societies is to some extent a remnant of our evolutionary history. Group living, dominance hierarchies, mating systems, that sort of stuff. These attributes affect what we consider moral and what not, and variation in these attributes explains some of the variation in morality that we can see today. Up to a point our ideas about morality therefore have a rational foundation in the sense that we can rationalize how they might have evolved.

    The way we think in general has been shaped by our evolutionary history and therefore, yes, specifically also how we think about evolution and natural selection. Clearly, the way you think about it is influenced by your religious feelings, which are a state of mind that might have been quite useful to our ancestors in the battle against competing groups of humans/monkeys.

  65. Raevmo,

    You may very well be correct that we can rationalize that our moral beliefs evolved -I’m not disputing it. Maybe we only have religious or moral beliefs because our ancestors found them useful in battle.

    But why stop there? As you seem to agree, our thinking about evolution is just as much affected by evolution as is our thinking about moral beliefs and religion. The state of mind that accepts evolution is very useful today in academic battles, since anyone doubting evolution is not given tenure at prestigious universities or research grants. So, like religious belief, we can see the rational foundation for belief in evolution by seeing how that belief might have evolved.

    And, in general, isn’t everything we think about anything at all, be it religion, math, science, evolution, etc. open to rationalization in terms of evolutionary history? Why single out religious and moral belief for this analysis?

    Dave T.

  66. taciturnus wrote:
    “One of these common elements of misery is hunger. By hunger I don’t mean the subjective feeling of hunger but the bodily state of not having sufficient nourishment. I don’t experience your feeling of hunger and you don’t mine, but it is objectively true that we both need food. To the extent that we don’t get sufficient food, we are miserable, and to the extent that we do get sufficient food, we are happy. The same argument can be made for the common elements of clothing and shelter.”

    Hi Dave,
    Lack of food, clothing and shelter certainly contribute to misery, but I’m not sure I would call them “elements” of misery. Without knowing where your argument is heading, I can’t judge whether this distinction is important or irrelevant. Are we heading toward a “felicific calculus” a la Bentham? Some other form of utilitarianism? Or something else entirely?

    If you don’t mind, could you delineate the entire argument you are making? Great detail isn’t necessary — I’ll ask questions to fill in anything that isn’t clear in your initial sketch.

    Also, I think we should clarify the goal. In my mind, we’re looking for standards of morality which can, in Adrian’s words, “provide an objective reason why, even if we could get away with it, we shouldn’t do something terribly wrong,” and which people would regard as absolute, meaning (among other things) that they would trump any competing standards in determining whether something is right or wrong.

    Thanks,
    Valerie

  67. A noble goal, Valerie. Do you think it reachable?

  68. Dave T,

    “And, in general, isn’t everything we think about anything at all, be it religion, math, science, evolution, etc. open to rationalization in terms of evolutionary history? Why single out religious and moral belief for this analysis?”

    I was singling that out because it’s the subject of this thread, or so I thought.

  69. Valerie,

    The goal is as you stated.

    I don’t mind giving the end of the argument now. But I suspect that after we go back and forth a few times, we will end up where we were in my last post. Be that as it may, a quick summary of my argument would be:

    1. Human nature is such that certain empirically identifiable goods are necessary to merely sustain life. Among these are food, clothing and shelter. Analysis of these goods would show that, in order to obtain these goods with regularity, other goods are necessary, among which are education and community. We can further analyze human nature and identify goods that are not strictly necessary to survival, but fulfill or complete human life based on its empirical character. Among these are goods like friendship, truth, justice and virtue. The important point is that these goods are based on human nature, not an arbitrary decision. Possession of these goods is the state of being happy, lack of these goods (to the extent that they are lacked) is a state of misery. (These are definitions).

    2. There is also a hierarchy to the goods of human nature. That is, some are more valuable than others, value being judged by their relation to the fulfillment of human life.

    3. Every human being naturally “desires” happiness. I put “desires” in quotes because I don’t necessarily mean a conscious desire, although it can involve that. What I mean is that every person, based on his or her common human nature, is naturally fulfilled by the goods of human nature whether they recognize it or not, and experiences an impulse to achieve those goods that it recognizes.

    4. Certain actions cannot, by their nature, serve as a means to the fulfillment of human nature in terms of the goods peculiar to it. That is, no one can achieve human fulfillment through them. For example, it is impossible to achieve truth, friendship, justice or virtue through mass murder.

    5. These actions can be categorized as moral absolutes, meaning that “no one ought to ever do them.” Why should anyone pay attention to this ought? Because they possess a human nature that cannot be fulfilled through those acts under any circumstances.

    Dave T.

  70. Hi Dave,

    Thanks for laying out the argument. I plan to answer in detail after a good day’s sleep (worked all night last night).

    Valerie

  71. “A noble goal, Valerie. Do you think it reachable?”

    jacktone,
    I’m skeptical, but I do think it’s a worthy goal. That’s why I was interested in hearing Dave’s proposal.

    In my comment I said that the goal was to find objective, universal standards of morality which, in Adrian’s words, would “provide an objective reason why, even if we could get away with it, we shouldn’t do something terribly wrong.” The use of the word “wrong” in that sentence is interesting because it already assumes a moral code. Adrian, like many of us, wants an objective moral system which will back up and justify his pre-existing intuitive moral code.

    An objective system which condones the torture of infants will be rejected by all of us as not being truly moral. For most of us, that response is immediate and obvious. Only if pressed would we feel the need to further justify the protection of babies. For Dave, as an Aristotelian, the justification would presumably be that torturing babies cannot lead to the fulfillment of our human natures. For me and many others, the argument would be that causing gratuitous pain in other sentient beings is wrong.

    In each case, the justification itself begs the question “Why is this justification valid?” In Dave’s case, we can ask “Assuming that you’re correct that torturing babies does not fulfill our human natures, why is it a good thing to fulfill our human natures in the first place?” And however he responds, we can ask yet again “Why is that good and not bad?” My point is that any moral argument rests on axioms, just as a logical argument does. Just as you can’t prove anything logically without assuming certain axioms, you can’t justify a moral code without at some point resorting to “moral axioms”.

    What dissatisfies Adrian is the idea that our moral axioms evolved, because he thinks this strips them of any objective weight. They lose the force of their “oughtness”.

    This problem seems unavoidable to me. No matter what objective moral system is presented, we will always have to ask if its moral axioms are “right” or “wrong”, which means judging them against our own internal, intuitive morality.

    My hope resides in the fact that we as humans take our intuitive morality very seriously, even when (as in my case) we believe that its origins are evolutionary. We may not be able to come up with an all-encompassing morality that satisfies everyone, but there might be a core of morality that we can all share in common (except for those whose brains, due to damage or unusual wiring, simply do not support even that common core).

    Valerie

  72. Hi Dave,

    Wow. You really are a modern-day Aristotelian, aren’t you? On the other threads it was “form” and the Aristotelian mean. Now it’s a very Nicomachean-sounding ethical system.

    “There is also a hierarchy to the goods of human nature. That is, some are more valuable than others, value being judged by their relation to the fulfillment of human life.”

    Is the hierarchy identical for every human? What happens when there is a conflict between the fulfillment of human A and the fulfillment of human B?

    “Every human being naturally “desires” happiness. I put “desires” in quotes because I don’t necessarily mean a conscious desire, although it can involve that.”

    I agree.

    “Certain actions cannot, by their nature, serve as a means to the fulfillment of human nature in terms of the goods peculiar to it. That is, no one can achieve human fulfillment through them. For example, it is impossible to achieve truth, friendship, justice or virtue through mass murder.”

    Mass murder is a fairly non-controversial case. What about murder itself? On another thread I used the example of a person who has the opportunity to murder Hitler, potentially saving millions of Jews in Europe from persecution and death. How does the decision of whether or not to murder Hitler play out in your scheme?

    “These actions can be categorized as moral absolutes, meaning that “no one ought to ever do them.” Why should anyone pay attention to this ought? Because they possess a human nature that cannot be fulfilled through those acts under any circumstances.”

    This raises the question, as I mentioned to jacktone, of why the fulfillment of human nature is a good thing in the first place. Our intuition says that it is, but how can we objectively say so?

  73. Valerie,

    It is true that the argument I am making can be traced back to Aristotle. The reason I make it though, is because it is true, not because it is Aristotelian. I think describing me as a modern-day Aristotelian is like describing people who use
    c2 = a2 + b2 as modern-day Pythagoreans. Anyway, I take it as a compliment…

    The hierarchy is common to all human beings insofar as we have a common human nature. That’s why my argument started with goods like food, clothing, shelter and education. But there are others. It is false that the pursuit of starvation, nakedness, exposure and ignorance as themselves fulfilling of human life can lead anyone to happiness. It is also true that we have aspects of our individual natures that are not common to everyone, but these are in addition to rather in competition with the common human nature we all share. No one is born with a “quirk” of human nature that allows them to live without eating anything. But I may be born with a taste for Mexican food and you with a taste for French food.

    As far as mass-murder vs. murder, I deliberately chose the mass-murder case because it is non-controversial. Remember our goal as you described it (quoting Adrian):

    “In my mind, we’re looking for standards of morality which can, in Adrian’s words, “provide an objective reason why, even if we could get away with it, we shouldn’t do something terribly wrong,” and which people would regard as absolute, meaning (among other things) that they would trump any competing standards in determining whether something is right or wrong. ”

    I believe one standard of morality that meets this goal is that “no one ought to commit mass-murder.” If you agree, then we have established that at least one such moral norm exists and we can move on to more controversial cases. If you don’t agree, then there is no point in trying to resolve more controversial cases before we have resolved the less controversial ones.

    “This raises the question, as I mentioned to jacktone, of why the fulfillment of human nature is a good thing in the first place. Our intuition says that it is, but how can we objectively say so?”

    I think you are using the word “good” in a different sense than I am. I use the word “good” to mean “that which fulfills the nature of something.” (The reason I wanted to start the argument carefully was in an attempt to head off this kind of misunderstanding.) Human goods are those things that fulfill human nature. Your question doesn’t make sense in terms of my understanding of good, because it just asks why the fulfillment of human nature is a fulfillment of human nature. “Good” as used in my argument is not based on intuition but on empirical human nature.

    Sincerely,
    Dave T.

  74. Hi Dave,

    By calling you an Aristotelian, I’m not implying slavish devotion to everything Aristotle wrote. I label myself a Darwinian, but that certainly doesn’t mean I agree with Darwin’s racist beliefs or his partly Lamarckian model of heritable variation. It’s just that I’ve never met anyone who agrees with Aristotle on all three of those crucial concepts (form, the mean, and ethics, and so I find it worth commenting on.

    “The hierarchy is common to all human beings insofar as we have a common human nature…It is also true that we have aspects of our individual natures that are not common to everyone, but these are in addition to rather in competition with the common human nature we all share.”

    Is that true? If my desire for adventure causes me to place myself in physically uncomfortable or dangerous circumstances, doesn’t that demonstrate a conflict between aspects of my nature? The part of me desiring safety and comfort cannot be fully satisfied without denying the part desiring adventure, and vice versa.

    “I believe one standard of morality that meets this goal is that “no one ought to commit mass-murder.” If you agree, then we have established that at least one such moral norm exists and we can move on to more controversial cases.”

    I think you and I can safely agree on the prohibition of mass murder, but there are distressingly large segments of humanity who think that genocide is sometimes permissible as a preemptive defense of something they consider sacred. How do we get them on board with this system?

    Also, I thought the idea was to come up with an objective system which could (at least in principle) answer all moral questions. Now it sounds like you are just trying to establish a least common denominator for morality.

    “I use the word “good” to mean “that which fulfills the nature of something.” Human goods are those things that fulfill human nature.”

    If human goods (and hence human morals) are to be defined solely with respect to human nature, that would seem to imply that we should disregard the natures and interests of animals in our dealings with them. Our only criterion for how we treat them, in your system, would seem to be how our choices impact the fulfillment of our human natures.

    Similarly, it seems to be far from guaranteed that fulfilling one’s own nature will never impede another person’s attempts to fulfill his or her nature. How does your system address this conflict?

    Also recall that Adrian was looking for a way to objectively ground what he called the “oughtness” of moral standards. Even if you could consistently base a moral system on the idea of the fulfillment of human nature, you haven’t grounded the system until you’ve shown that the concept at its base (what I would call the “moral axiom”) has the objective “oughtness” that Adrian seeks. By your own admission, you’ve simply defined the fulfillment of human nature as good, rather than demonstrating it.

    Regards,
    Valerie

  75. Valerie,

    I began the argument by attempting to build up a hierarchy of human goods, starting with things like food, clothing, etc. I agreed to abide by your request to short-circuit that part of the argument and get to the conclusion, although I didn’t think it would actually speed things up, because we would end up back where we were, discussing the constitution of the hierarchy of human goods. So instead of establishing the nature of the hierarchy of human goods, I just stated that there was one:

    “The hierarchy is common to all human beings insofar as we have a common human nature…It is also true that we have aspects of our individual natures that are not common to everyone, but these are in addition to rather in competition with the common human nature we all share.”

    You responded with this objection:

    “Is that true? If my desire for adventure causes me to place myself in physically uncomfortable or dangerous circumstances, doesn’t that demonstrate a conflict between aspects of my nature? The part of me desiring safety and comfort cannot be fully satisfied without denying the part desiring adventure, and vice versa.”

    The only way for me to answer this is to go back to the patient build-up of the hierarchy of human goods, and through that show the relationship between the desire for adventure and the desire for safety. I can’t answer your question in any other way.

    “I think you and I can safely agree on the prohibition of mass murder, but there are distressingly large segments of humanity who think that genocide is sometimes permissible as a preemptive defense of something they consider sacred. How do we get them on board with this system?”

    Getting people to recognize universal morality is a different question than whether there actually is a universl morality. I did not claim that I would be able to get everyone on board with the system. What I am attempting to show is that we can demonstrate through reason that there are certain universal moral norms that everyone ought to obey. But people will only recognize these norms to the extent that they are reasonable and interested in discovering them. Not everyone is reasonable and/or interested. Mass murderers usually fall into both of these categories. I’m addressing the argument to you because I find you both reasonable and interested.

    I want to make sure that we really agree on mass murder. We don’t agree if you think our agreement is based on coincidence, that is if we agree that mass murder is wrong but for different reasons. My point is that mass murder is against a universal moral norm because such an action can in no way lead to the fulfillment of human nature, whether the mass murderer recognizes that or not. If we don’t agree that this is the reason mass murder is wrong, then our agreement is only superficial and we will only confuse ourselves if we don’t hash it out now.

    “Also, I thought the idea was to come up with an objective system which could (at least in principle) answer all moral questions. Now it sounds like you are just trying to establish a least common denominator for morality. ”

    Again, I think we are trying to hurry up the argument in a way that won’t help. The system I am describing may, in principle, be able to answer all moral questions (although I don’t claim to have thought it through for every possible moral question). But you are asking me to prove the fundamental theorem of calculus before we have agreed on the basics of algebra.

    By the way, I of course think that there are moral questions that are difficult to answer and may be practically unresolvable by reasonable people. The position I am defending is that not every moral question is like that. Some, indeed many, moral queestions can be resolved in terms of universal moral norms (what everyone “ought to do”) that can be recognized through reason.

    “Also recall that Adrian was looking for a way to objectively ground what he called the “oughtness” of moral standards. Even if you could consistently base a moral system on the idea of the fulfillment of human nature, you haven’t grounded the system until you’ve shown that the concept at its base (what I would call the “moral axiom”) has the objective “oughtness” that Adrian seeks. By your own admission, you’ve simply defined the fulfillment of human nature as good, rather than demonstrating it.”

    This is a fair point. Once we have resolved the other points, I will address this one.

    Cheers,
    Dave T.

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