A conversation with Randal Rauser

I've been told by several readers I ought to visit Randall Rauser's blog. After he recently did a book with Jon Loftus, I finally got around to visiting his blog and perusing some recent posts. The fact that he seemed to be defending the most profoundly stupid apologetic argument ever devised – the ontological argument – in several exchanges he's had with my blogging comrade Jonathan Pearce, coupled with his background in philosophy (I've generally found philosophers to be better at bullshitting than imparting any meaningful knowledge) raised some red flags. But I took a stab at it to see what all the fuss was about.

My take on this discussion is that I asked a pair of rather simple questions – for evidence that an ontological moral law really exists, and more importantly how it could be objectively known by us mere humans – and he basically drowned the discussion in obfuscations and digressions. But obviously, the only other person who's as biased as I am about this conversation is Randall. So, I'm posting the discussion here for your dissemination. The original post can be found here. It's all rather long, so if you're going to read it all you might want to whip up a sandwich first.




My comments are in standard font, and his are in italics.

It's an interesting idea that religion perhaps has value simply for prudential reasons, even if the rational ones are elusive. One could reason that living by some given code of ethics might lead one to live a happier life, even if the foundation of the ethical code wasn't true.
But I think those kinds of concerns are misguided, namely because we have plenty of prudential reasons to adhere to ethical standards now, regardless of any reward that may or may not await us upon death. Being obligatorily gregarious, bonded, biologically unequal, interdependent beings who are self-interested requires us to devise various codes of behavior to serve our shared needs and interests. I like to tell people that if they want moral autonomy, it's easy – just go live in the woods by yourself! But if you want to live in a cooperative, interdependent society with other self-interested people, moral norms become a function of social necessity.
It seems to me that appealing to some nebulous "moral law" – to which no one has direct, objective access anyway – simply pushes the issue back a step (i.e., doing what is in our best interest in the hereafter instead of the here and now) and, precisely because no one has objective access to this moral law even if it exists, opens the door to the justification of behavior that is objectively contrary to our shared needs and interests.
Besides, if someone thinks their faith is more or less a crapshoot, what's the point? Why serve a god who would punish people for having the wrong theology?

"It seems to me that appealing to some nebulous "moral law" – to which no one has direct, objective access anyway"
On the contrary, our moral perception of basic moral facts is among the most secure things we know and is no less "nebulous" than our rational intuition of mathematical facts.

Randal, thanks for the reply. I think there are a few problems with your statement:
- Mathematics are derived from evidential observation (see
Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory), not intuitions. In fact, mathematics can often be profoundly counter-intuitive.
- Intuition is by definition a subjective phenomena, not an objective one, and it is neither necessary nor sufficient to establish the objective truth or falsity of a proposition.
- If there is some objective moral law that exists independently of human cognition, then it is irrelevant unless we have objective access to it in the same way we have objective access to sets of discrete objects.
- Our perception of moral facts is dependent on our sociocultural circumstances. Most of us now would agree that owning another person is wrong any way you slice it, and about as wrong as wrong can be, so much so that we may fool ourselves into thinking such a perception is intuitive. But until 150 or so years ago, such a perception was not the norm. Or to use another example, most of us would agree that genocide is wrong and yet many of us agree that the bombings of civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were rationally acceptable because they were for the greater good.
The start of mathematical reasoning comes with axioms which are taken to be self-evident. Philosophers describe the cognitive process by which we detect such self-evidence as rational intuition. (So much depends on how we're using the term "intuition".)
You write: "Our perception of moral facts is dependent on our sociocultural circumstances." To an extent that is true (though if you look cross culturally you will find a surprising amount of agreement on basic moral practices, with complex rationalizations to explain where accepted practice diverges, as in the cannibalistic warriors who justify their cannibalism by explaining the victims are not fully human). However, it doesn't follow that we don't perceive objective moral facts through socio-historical circumstances. At most it follows that our socio-historical perception is fallible.

I disagree that mathematical reasoning begins with axioms that are taken to be self-evident. That is the conventional rationalist approach, but I've always found it to be nonsensical.
Set theory says that we observe discrete objects in our environment, which can be grouped into sets; from there we can reason the addition, subtraction, multiplication and division of sets, and those evidentially established facts form the basis for mathematical proofs. How would we ever abstract the idea of sets if there were no discrete objects to observe? That's why I think the rationalist approach is nonsensical – axiomatic truths could not be abstracted without an evidential basis.
And while you're correct in noting that a shifting moral zeitgeist does not logically discount the existence of objective moral facts, I'm more interested in an evidential argument that objective moral facts exist in the first place, and more importantly how such facts could be objectively accessed. Intuition is not sufficient, and neither is the inherently biased reading of scriptures or religious creeds.
And if an objective moral law cannot be objectively accessed, then those who advocate its existence are nonetheless forced to confront morality the same way the rest of us do: as pragmatic rules that allow us to cooperate and thrive in an interdependent social hierarchy, rather than as an abstract set of ideals.

Mike, have you ever looked at theories of sense perception? There are three main theories -- adverbial, sense data and theory of appearing -- and each provides little illumination and is beset with problems when it comes to explaining just what it means to see a tree. Indeed, we might even want to call these theories non-sensical. But the response is not to deny sense perception. Nor, I think, is the response to deny rational intuition.
By the way, what do you think mathematical entities are? When I say "17 is prime" it seems I am predicating a property of an entity. But what is that entity?
"I'm more interested in an evidential argument that objective moral facts exist in the first place...."
How does our knowledge that there is an external world get established? Because of an overriding disposition to be drawn to believe there is an external world corresponding to our conscious life. Likewise, the moral universe gets established by an overriding drive to believe moral qualities correspond to our apparent perception of such qualities in the actions of moral agents.

I ought to clarify that I'm not denying rational intuition. Certainly our intuitions give a great deal of reliable information, including that attained by way of our sensory perception.
However, we also know quite well that our intuitions, like our sensory perceptions, often give us misleading or false information. It's why Wikipedia's list of cognitive biases is so disarmingly long.
So my argument isn't to reject the importance of intuition, but – to re-state for emphasis – argue that intuitions are neither necessary nor sufficient to assess the objective truth or falsity of a proposition. This would of course include claims of an ontological moral law; our intuitions about moral norms are insufficient to establish that such a thing exists.
To answer your question on mathematics, mathematical "entities" are simply cognitive abstractions. Their existence depends solely on the existence of human minds (a great book on this is Where Mathematics Come From by Lakoff and Nunez).
And I disagree with your assessment of how our knowledge of an external reality is established. On the contrary, it is simply through evidential experience. This requires only a couple of provisional, foundational assumptions: I exist, and my sensory perception is generally accurate. Not that these assumptions need to be consciously made – the evidence of an external reality is so overwhelming that we quickly take the necessity of such assumptions for granted.
But regardless of whether one takes the empirical perspective I've offered or the rationalist one you have, it doesn't follow that our "drive to believe" in moral qualities (which, presumably, exist objectively and independently of human cognition) reflects such an ontological reality, instead of the pragmatic and pliable moral norms that shape our ability to function as gregarious and interdependent yet self-interested conscious creatures. Our intuitions can be and occasionally are profoundly wrong, reflecting no such external reality. Therefore, something more must be done to establish the existence of any objective moral law.

"To answer your question on mathematics, mathematical "entities" are simply cognitive abstractions."
This contradicts with the views of mathematicians back to Pythagoras and down to the overwhelming majority view of contemporary mathematicians and philosophers of mathematics. But that's a bigger discussion than a thread can handle.
I think you misunderstood my point about sense perception. The point is that the means by which we perceive the world is no less mysterious than the means by which we perceive numbers or moral properties.

I disagree; the views on what exactly mathematics are get about as diverse as you could possibly imagine., but the embodied mind theory of mathematics fits well with numerous well-established views on the subject.
But the point seems tangential; I assumed you intended to lead to a larger point with the mathematics example but I'm not quite sure where you were going with it. If its to tie in with your second paragraph here, I disagree for several reasons:
It may be difficult to explain, at least in an intuitive way, how our brains process sensory data and form representations of objects, which we "perceive". But I don't think there's any great mystery to either that or our perception of mathematical objects. But even if there were, I don't find it relevant to a moral law; the obvious difference between, say, mathematics and a moral law is that mathematics can be used to make predictions about how reality works. Morals, being qualitative statements of value, cannot sensibly have any ontological existence – they have to be rooted in axioms of human existence, like "we are interdependent and self-interested conscious beings".
It may seem tempting to assume that certain moral values you take to be axiomatically true ought to apply universally (e.g., it would always be right or wrong to do x), but I think you're taking for granted that much of what you perceive as morally intuitive is the product of both natural selection (see Frans de Waal's many books on the subject of moral evolution) and a shifting moral zeitgeist that changes in response to the needs and interests of societies.

"the views on what exactly mathematics are get about as diverse as you could possibly imagine"
That's not really true. Among realists (the predominant view) there are two main position: structuralism and Platonism.
"But even if there were, I don't find it relevant to a moral law"
Richard Taylor once observed that our theories of perception have not improved noticeably over those of the ancient Greeks. He's right. While you assert there is not "any great mystery" to sense perception, the history of failed theories of sense perception tells otherwise. And yet we accept that we can just see things, even when we cannot explain how.
Likewise, we can just grasp mathematical objects despite the fact that most philosophers of mathematics (back to Pythagoras) were realists who believed mathematical entities are mysteries, aspatial and atemporal entities.
Likewise we can just look at certain actions and states of affairs and immediately perceive at least an initial moral assessment through moral perception.


I hate to say it, but I think you're doing little more than drowning your arguments in sophistry. The "history of failed theories of sense perception" is irrelevant given our modern scientific understanding of sensory perception (which is precisely what allows us to identify past theories as erroneous), just as it is modern scientific knowledge inaccessible to history's philosophers of mathematics that forms the basis for the modern embodied mind theory.
At best, I feel you've inadvertently constructed some false analogies that are little more than diversionary. I think you know that intuition alone is insufficient to establish the existence of an ontological moral law as true, lest you throw the baby out with the epistemological bathwater – since reality often proves counter-intuitive.
I think it's really quite simple: if moral proscriptions exist objectively and can be objectively accessed, we ought to be able to establish a methodology that demonstrates how erroneous moral ideas are identified and discarded while correct ones are verified. Intuition isn't sufficient to accomplish this (again: reality is often counter-intuitive); the inherently biased readings of scriptures isn't sufficient; unverifiable revelatory claims are not sufficient.
It seems clear to me that even if you're right about the existence of a moral law – which I must stress you haven't really given me any good reason to believe exists – you've proposed something that lies permanently beyond our epistemic horizon, and thus you're forced to either confront morality from a pragmatic and secular perspective with the rest of us, or remove yourself from the public discourse in claiming that you have revealed knowledge of what this objective moral law actually proscribes (which is generally accompanied by picket signs).

"our modern scientific understanding of sensory perception"
Mike, scientists don't broach the topic of theories of sense perception. I'd just ask you to read up on the philosophy of sense perception. Howard Robinson's book "Perception" is a good overview.

You can't be serious. Scientific understanding of neurology and cognition have been quite frankly the only tools that have allowed us to discard antiquated philosophies of perception. Philosophy alone is inept at illuminating reality without a methodology by which to identify and discard erroneous propositions.


Okay, please provide a unified description from tree to my perceptual experience of seeing a tree. More specifically, what's going on between photons hitting the rods and cones of the eye leading to neural signals and my sense experience of seeing a tree?


I'm not a neuroscientist, so I'm not sure why you'd expect me to be able to detail such complex cognitive processes. But appealing to the mystery of these processes makes for a pretty weak case in arguing that science isn't integral to philosophical theories of mind. Do you think Aristotle would have bothered to formulate a theory of direct realism had he known what a photon is?


You're not going to find that account from neuroscience because no such account exists. You'll find many incompatible accounts in philosophy of mind, none that is any more satisfactory than those theories of perception.
Atheist philosopher Colin McGinn puts it like this: how does the soggy grey matter of the mind produce Technicolor phenomenology?


I certainly wouldn't have the hubris to argue that there aren't many mysteries about consciousness, including how sensory information is processed. But I've seen no evidence which indicates that the mind is more than the brain, and if anything is going to resolve those incompatible accounts in philosophy, it will be science. That's because unlike philosophy, science is capable of taking us beyond our introspective intuitions and, as sometimes happens, revealing those intuitive assumptions to be a house of cards.
And while I still have no idea why you've steered the discussion in this tangential direction, I'll just say this: appealing to the mysterious nature of consciousness as some sort of juxtaposition for the idea that moral intuitions reflect an ontological moral law is flatly incoherent. I thought that since it seems to be such a major component of your theology, asking for objective evidence of an ontological moral law would produce a straight forward answer – not layer after layer of obfuscation and digression. As it is, I think you haven't presented any evidence precisely because none exists. Objective moral law is a fiction, and a useless one at that.

"I've seen no evidence which indicates that the mind is more than the brain"
Well then you should read up in the philosophy of mind. Forty years ago type and token identity theories of consciousness were popular according to which conscious states are identical with particular brain states. Those positions have been widely abandoned due to the sheer crush of problems presented by semantic content, intentionality, and qualia.
"appealing to the mysterious nature of consciousness as some sort of juxtaposition for the idea that moral intuitions reflect an ontological moral law is flatly incoherent."
That's not what I argued. What I pointed out is that objecting to moral perception or rational intuition because we lack a satisfactory account of how we perceive morally or rationally is illegitimate unless you also want to reject sense perception because we lack a satisfactory account of how we sense perceive.

Well then you should read up in the philosophy of mind.
I think you can do better than that. I might as well say that you should bone up on your neurology and cognitive science, like perhaps the book Philosophy in the Flesh.
What I pointed out is that objecting to moral perception or rational
intuition because we lack a satisfactory account of how we perceive
morally or rationally is illegitimate unless you also want to reject
sense perception because we lack a satisfactory account of how we sense
perceive.
Fortunately for me, that wasn't my objection.
Rather, my objection is that the internal coherency of your rational intuition is insufficient to make inferences about the objective nature of reality.
Given your background in philosophy, I presume you're familiar with the isolation objection to coherentism. This simply says that a belief can be internally logically consistent yet still not actually reflect reality. I think that is the problem your arguments face.
A reader of my blog brought a great article to my attention from the site Less Wrong that I think highlights the point I am trying to make, more eloquently than I'm capable of doing. A relevant quote:
Before you can question your intuitions, you have to realize that what your mind's eye is looking at is an intuition—some cognitive algorithm, as seen from the inside—rather than a direct perception of the Way Things Really Are.
People cling to their intuitions, I think, not so much because they believe their cognitive algorithms are perfectly reliable, but because they can't see their intuitions as the way their cognitive algorithms happen to look from the inside.
This is what I'm talking about when I say that science often reveals reality to be counter-intuitive. What philosopher, for example, could have ever used rational intuition to infer the bizarre behavior of subatomic particles, or the relativity of simultaneity? I think you're making a fundamental error by getting caught up in the internal coherency of your beliefs while putting too much stock in your "rational intuitions". Reality has no obligation to conform to the necessarily limited cognitive models of reality our brains construct. Without some "direct perception of the Way Things Really Are", as the article says, it's fallacious to assume that your rational intuition alone can allow you make reliable inferences about the objective nature of reality.
That is why you can't use rational intuition and logical inference to establish the existence of an objective moral law. Reality just doesn't work that way.
In any case, I think for my part this discussion has run its course, though I'd be happy to hear any closing thoughts you might have.
Oh! Here's the article:
http://lesswrong.com/lw/no/how_an_algorithm_feels_from_inside/

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