• About TWIM

    The Warfare Is Mental (TWIM) reflects the mental warfare of an author, screenwriter, publisher and member of the Writer's Guild of America. Family, friends, health, humor, art, music, science, faith, fun and knowledge are some of the things that are important to me.

    TWIM is the first and only theist blog listed on the Atheist Blogroll, which currently contains over 1,000 blogs. It goes without saying that I don't endorse hardly any of the views of any of them. Contact Mojoey for more information.

    Ironically, TWIM won an award for "Best Atheist / Skeptic Site" from this site. Much obliged.

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    You and your commenters are a feast of thinking — great stuff.

    -C.L. Dyck
    I have no need to engage with racists, so will ignore cl’s further diatribes.

    cl resists following through on a thought even to provide a solid opposing position, and thus stifles many conversations. It’s a shame since it seems like cl has some brain power that could be applied to the topics at hand.

    [faithlessgod and Hermes] fit my definition of trolling. I didn’t take any of those attacks against you seriously, and quickly categorized them as trolls.

    -JS Allen,
    [cl] is, as many have noticed, a master of this warfare. I’ve been following him for quite some time and he’s one of the most effective Christian trolls out there. No one can completely destroy a conversation as effectively as he does, and with such masterful grace and subtly that he rarely gets banned. This isn’t a blunt-force “U R Hitler!” troll, this is the Yoda of trolling.

    This seems to imply that cl is, at least in part, disingenuous in terms of how he responds/what he claims. Is this most likely true, supported by evidence, or merely a subjective claim?

    -al friedlander,
    ...I wanted to get a message to you outside of the context of specific discussions on CSA. You make good, insightful contributions to that site, and since I often agree with you I'm glad there is someone else there defending my positions better than I sometimes can. However I don't think anything of value would be lost if you stopped engaging in personal combat with juvenile snipers.

    Thank you for your wonderful response - so reasoned in the race of [Waldvogel's] blustering.

    -Annie Laurie Gaylor
     Freedom From Religion Foundation
    Thanks for a great Op-Ed.

    -Marianne Ratcliff
     VC Star
    ...as atheists we need to make sure that someone like cl and any Christian readers of [An Apostate's Chapel] don’t come away with the perception that the atheists caved in or were incapable of responding. I’m sure that a lot of Christians who find cl incomprehensible at times and don’t even bother reading him themselves will come away with an assumption that cl is that sort of rare intellectual theist who can prove that gods exist. And that’s how those inane rumors about the feared xian intellectuals start…

     An Apostate's Chapel
    You are in so over your head here, you are embarrassing yourself...
    I am well versed in many aspects of evolution biology, through my academic background, and my professional life. Unless your academic degrees and background match mine, cease and desist. Return to philosophy and rhetoric, or whatever it is you perceive your strengths to be. They are definitely not science, even at the high school level.

    -R.C. Moore
     Evangelical Realism
    You're doing a fine job.

    -Prof. Larry Moran
     Dept. of Biochemistry
     University of Toronto
     re: R.C. Moore & others
    Phyletic change and vicariance (or, drift and selection versus population isolation), as cl points out, are much better ways of describing what are unfortunately more commonly known as micro- and macro- evolution, respectively.

     Biology postdoc
     Univ. of Cyprus
     re: R.C. Moore & others
    cl says, “The minute you call yourself a Christian or an Atheist or whatever the heck else, you automatically get painted by other people’s interpretations of those words, which are almost always different and almost always distorted.” cl’s point couldn’t be more on. As cl points out there is an important reason for not claiming any real religious (or lack thereof) belief. It puts logical constraints on one's arguments due directly to the bias of the individual that is translating the English to mind ideas of what it means to be religious.

    Just who in the bloody hell do you think you are, you Christian piece of garbage, to come here barking out orders? You're an arrogant, condescending piece of shit. You seem to think you're an intellectual of sorts, when all you are is a Christian who's read a few books. John, everyone, this really is the limit. BR, I'm more than a little annoyed that you continue to engage him. I'm out of here. I have better things to do than to waste my time with these cretins.

     Debunking Christianity
    How old are you CL? I'd guess you have not yet experienced much life. I'd say you were under the age of 21, too young to be here. I don't give a damn what you think of me or my deconversion at all. You're too stupid to realize that regardless of it you must deal with the arguments in the book. They are leading people away from you [sic] faith. I'm seriously considering banning you cl, as I've heard you were banned on other sites. You are much too ignorant for us to have a reasonable discussion.

    -John Loftus
     Debunking Christianity
    I admired the way you handled yourself in the discussion on John's blog. I'm not patient enough to keep my sarcasm in check with some of them blokes, but appreciate those who are.

    -David Marshall
     re: Debunking Christianity
    cl, I have to say, while I fundamentally disagree with you, you are an individual which I highly respect. I think your responses are always well thought out and your insights always well thought out and pertinently derived.
    [Y]ou have made me a stronger atheist in my regards to critical thinking and debating. I really can’t wait to hear more from you. Hell, I’d even buy you a drink, good sir. Cheers!

     Evangelical Realism
    Bottom line? Sometimes I think he's right about certain arguments, and I don't have a problem admitting that. Other times, however, I think he's wrong, and I've called him on that. But I have found he can be pretty reasonable if you (1) don't overstate your case, (2) make concessions when you have, and (3) insist he do the same.

    I like it when [cl] makes me stop, think and question if I am making unfounded assertions or if I am being sloppy. What has been annoying me about cl of late is that he is being excruciatingly anal...

    I really can't thank you enough for catching me on my error in rhetoric. I always love a good debate! And I always enjoy your posts, as well! Keep up the great writing and the excellent eye for detail!

    You make me smarter...

    -Mike G.
    ..thank you, cl. I discovered your blog on a random web search and saw it as an oasis amidst a vast desert of seemingly intractable theist-atheist debate.

    -Sung Jun
    It's good to be able to discuss with people who are open and respectful, and know that disagreement does not mean disrespect... You are to be congratulated, not only for your patience, but also your ability to hold an ever-growing debate together with an impressive degree of structure.

    My tone is derogatory... [cl is] ignorant and credulous and deserves to be mocked... In the time he's been here, he's shown a consistent pattern of antagonizing everyone he comes in contact with, monopolizing threads, derailing discussions with perpetual complaints, quibbles and demands for attention, and generally making arguments that display a lack of good faith and responsiveness... it's become intolerable. I'm not banning him, but I'm putting in place some restrictions on how often he can comment.

     Daylight Atheism
    This is no defense of the annoying cl, but what a self-righteous, prissy atheist you turned out to be, Ebonmuse. I'm disappointed in you, stealing a strategem from the theists.

    -The Exterminator
     to Ebonmuse
    I certainly didn't get any bad impression about cl, and I can't relate his comments with any of the things (Ebonmuse) said above. I actually thought it was quite interesting to have him around.

    -Juan Felipe
     Daylight Atheism
    Please continue to allow
    cl to post his views and make it clear that he is still welcome. And let me be clear, cl is not a lunatic.

     Daylight Atheism
    With one exception, you are the most coherent and intelligent theist I've seen on this site...

    -Steve Bowen
     Daylight Atheism
    I'm rooting for cl. I hope he perpetually manages to skirt the rules enough to do his damage, forcing rule revision after rule revision, ad nauseum. Awesome! Let's watch as Ebon, ever more frustrated, continues to struggle to figure out how to keep his precious private blog neat and tidy as cl keeps messing up his papers while one by one, readers leave due to an every increasing administrative presence. Outstanding! Well I won't go. The thought of this sounds like the most entertaining thing that probably would have ever happened on Daylight Atheism. Hot damn!

    Your visit has been something of a reality check to me. It seems that when you present rational arguments and criticisms, many commenters feel territory slipping and then work up vaporous or leaky responses. I also want to remark that your presence here has considerably moved me to try being a more careful and understanding debater...

     Daylight Atheism
    I do have a lot of respect for you too. You seem to be a very intelligent and thoughtful individual with a knack for getting to the bottom of a problem, cutting through all the bullshit rhetoric on the way down. The fact that many other atheists seem to unreasonably despise you bothers me a lot, because I think that maybe they aren’t acting in good faith.

    -Peter Hurford
    I am not going to waste any more time parsing your comments to decide if they've crossed the line or not... So I banned you.

    -Greta Christina
    Be rude... cl invites rudeness. Would you want an incontinent little puppy coming into your house?

    -(((Billy))) the Atheist
    Note to all my regular readers: Since An Apostate’s Chapel is a free-speech zone, I don’t censor conversations.
    As it appears that cl is a troll, please note that I will not be responding to him any longer. I ask that you refrain from doing so, as well. Please don’t feed the troll!

    -The Chaplain
    …I can’t reconcile being a "freethinker" with banning speech. [cl's] comments are not offensive in the normal understanding of that term, and he poses absolutely no threat except perhaps to some imagined decorum. Why can’t atheists lighten up, for no-Christ’s sake?

    -The Exterminator
    Is it going to distract from my meal when crazy uncle cl starts blathering out nonsense, pick his ears with a carrot or start taking his pants off? No. In fact, it might actually heighten the experience in some amusing way. So no, I don't see cl's work as damage.

    I am beginning to suspect that you are a troll cl. Albeit an evolved troll, but a troll nonetheless. Perhaps we should all stop feeding the troll?

     Evangelical Realism
    [cl is] is either a sophist or an incompetent when it comes to the english language... (sic)

     Evangelical Realism
    I’d say cl is pretty sharp... it may be tempting at times to think that “the other guy” is arguing out of some personal character flaw rather than a sincere desire to acknowledge the truth, I still think it’s better to debate respectfully... It is disrespectful to make unsupported accusations against people, e.g. by suggesting that their views are caused by an intrinsically corrupt and immoral nature.

    -Deacon Duncan, 3-9-09
     Evangelical Realism
    [cl] cannot refute my facts, so he needs must find (sic) some scapegoat in order to claim that he has confronted the enemy and proven them wrong... cl, sadly, has proven himself to be the sort of guest who comes into your living room and sneaks behind your couch to take a crap on the floor, just so he can tell all your neighbors how bad your house smells and what an unsanitary housekeeper you are... an interesting case study in the negative effects a Christian worldview has on a reasonably intellectual mind.

    -Deacon Duncan, 6-17-09
     Evangelical Realism
    I strongly discourage discussion of the character, abilities, motives, or personal ancestry of individual commenters, as tempting as such comments may be at times. I discourage the posting of comments that make frequent use of the pronoun “you,” as in “you always…” or “you never…” or “you are just so…”, when directed at a specific individual.

    -Deacon Duncan, 4-9-09
     Evangelical Realism
    I won’t be publishing your most recent comment because it’s a return to the same sort of schtick you’ve pulled here before: re-writing other people’s arguments to make yourself look misunderstood and/or unfairly accused, taking “polyvalent” positions so that when people address your points you can claim to have said something else, distorting other people’s arguments, trolling for negative reactions, and so on.

    -Deacon Duncan, 10-8-09
     Evangelical Realism
    [E]gomaniacal troll.
    You win... You’re a disingenuous sophist through and through, cl. And a friggin’ narcissist to boot! Since I’ve thoroughly and purposefully broken the Deacon’s rules of engagement, I shall consider my right to post henceforth annulled, and move on - dramatic pause, lights out.

     Evangelical Realism
    He either thinks in a very weird way or he's quite the con artist.

    I will gladly admit that I have a boner for cl. Maybe some day I’ll even earn a place of honor on cl’s Blog of Infamy.

     Evangelical Realism
    Long time reader first time poster... I like reading what you
    have to say over at Daylight Atheism so I figured I'd pop in here.

    He's just a jerk
    that likes to argue.

     Daylight Atheism
    You’re not a reasonable thinker in my book. You’re simply an arguer, for better or worse. I’m Michael Palin, you’re John Cleese. You’re just a disputation-ist, bringing everything into question...

     Reason vs. Apologetics
    Motherfucker, this is an interesting blog... Quite the group of commenters.

    -John Evo
    You are very articulate, and I can only assume that it's a result of high intelligence; an intelligence that's interested in, and can understand, healthy debate. However, at every turn, that's not what I or others seem to get.

    -ex machina
     Daylight Atheism
    You are a troll, a liar, and a useless sack of shit. Not only that, but you're still wrong even after moving the goal posts and trying to re-write history. So, you can stop cyber stalking me now and trying to provoke me. I know what you are doing, and you are doing it so that you can whine about how I'm being irrational and mean to you and stroke your pathetic martyr complex. You're a pathetic attention whore and I've already given you too much attention. So, back the fuck off, stop following me around the intarwebs and trying to provoke me, and fuck off.

     Daylight Atheism
    I would just like to say that, OMGF, having read the debate as a neutral observer, some of the things cl says about your style of argument are true, IMO. It is quite hasty, which means you occasionally haven't got the central point cl is trying to make...

    -John D.
     Daylight Atheism
    ...this is a difficult question that deserves more than a kneejerk reaction, not to imply that you're kneejerking. You're the least kneejerking person I've met.

    If you’re here playing devil’s advocate, then, hey, you do a great job at it, it’s a service, keep us sharp... You’re a smart guy, but those are exactly the ones who give the worst headaches!

     An Apostate's Chapel
    You are a waste of time, cl. A big fat black hole of bullshit sucking in everyone who comes into contact with you.

    -Spanish Inquisitor
    As for all that harsh invective that's come your way, umm... I gotta say, I've seen some of the invective, but I haven't seen the behavior on your part that called for it. Maybe I've just not seen enough? I don't know... from what I've read, I can tell that you're a smart person, and whether you deserved any of that treatment or not is quite frankly immaterial to me; I just want to deal with the smart person at the eye of that storm.

     She Who Chatters
    I now think that you’re an atheist, just having fun at other atheists’ expense. If that’s the case, kudos.

    -The Exterminator

Consistent With The Hypothesis Of

Though occasional use is inevitable, I generally try to avoid the words proof and disproof, especially in discussions of epistemology and empiricism. I don’t know how many of you have met him yet, but Peter Hurford is a new commenter around here with a blog of his own, and from what I’ve seen so far, I would highly recommend dialoging with him on behalf of his aptitude and courtesy. He also asks good questions, the kind that get you thinking, as opposed to, say, the kind that piss you off. Recently on another blog, Peter made a remark that I felt compelled to reply to, and I wanted to repost a slight modification of that short reply here, just to see what people here might think of it.

Peter had remarked,

Interestingly enough, I’ve heard many times that all the beauty in the world is proof for God. But what of the ugliness in the world? Is this disproof of God?

Personally, when I run that sort of thing in my head, I substitute “proof” and “disproof” for “consistent / inconsistent with the hypothesis of” and then fill in the blanks with the hypothesis as needed. Is the beauty in the world consistent with the hypothesis of a majestic and splendorous God? Seems reasonable to me. Is the ugliness in the world inconsistent with the hypothesis of a majestic and splendorous God? I’d say if any only if the majestic and splendorous God was being posited as the only entity capable of initiating causal sequences ultimately experienced by sentient beings. I’d also say that the ugliness in the world is consistent with the hypotheses of 1) evil, but not omnipotent gods; 2) God’s righteous judgment of evil; and 3) the existence of free-willed, sentient beings who can commit both good and evil.

Interestingly enough, that is exactly the ontology I find myself in. Can anyone else really deny that they find themselves in such an ontology?

The Problem Of Evil: Where I’m At Today

While I’ll still gladly engage anybody on the issue, these days, I’m leaning towards the conclusion that the atheist’s problem of evil arguments are fatally flawed. In the end, all variants I’ve encountered reduce to incredulity: reasoning from premises derived at via conceptual analysis and intuition, the atheist disbelieves that a morally sufficient reason can exist: “There’s no way a good God would allow this much evil in the world.” That’s it. I’ve not seen a single POE argument that doesn’t reduce thus, and I’ll leave it to you to decide whether disbelief is sufficient to warrant skepticism in this regard. I say no. I mean, people said the same thing about QM and all sorts of other stuff: “There’s no way light can act as both particle and wave!” “There’s no way an airplane can fly!” “There’s no way man will walk on the moon!” Etc. This is why I like what they attribute to Archimedes: with a long enough lever, one could move the Earth.

Is anybody aware of a POE argument that doesn’t reduce thus?

Desires Cannot Fulfill Or Thwart Other Desires

In his post Living Without A Moral Code, part 3, Luke Muehlhauser writes,

Now, it seems straightforward that my carnivorous desires are immoral. Surely my desire to eat meat tends to thwart more and stronger desires than it fulfills. It certainly thwarts the desires of the animals I eat, both by way of their death and by way of their horrifying lives packed into factory farms.

That is incorrect. Desires cannot fulfill or thwart other desires.

Luke and Alonzo define morally good desires as “desires that tend to fulfill other desires,” and argue that we should use praise to promote them. Conversely, they define morally evil desires as “desires that tend to thwart other desires,” and argue that we should use condemnation to promote aversion to them. Yet, if desires are mere propositional attitudes as Alonzo also claims, then it is logically impossible for a desire to either thwart or fulfill other desires. If I was sitting next to you on the train, and you had the desire to breathe clean air, my desire to smoke could not possibly thwart your desire to breathe clean air. Only acts and the states of affairs created by them retain the ability to thwart or fulfill other desires. Simply put, desires cannot fulfill or thwart other desires unless acted upon. Only my lighting up a cigarette can thwart your desire to breathe clean air.

So why are desires the objects of evaluation in desirism? Is it simply a branding decision to make desirism more attractive on the shelf of moral theories? Or, is there a reason for making desires the objects of evaluation as opposed to acts?

Granted, intentional acts seem to flow from desires in every conceivable instance, so it makes sense to aim praise and condemnation at desires. If you can remove evil desire X from the population, then you effectively preclude all instances of evil act X therein. I see nothing controversial with that line of reasoning. Rather, I question the supremacy of desire fulfillment in moral evaluations. Don’t get me wrong; I think “desires fulfilled and thwarted” are certainly a component of morality, but they simply cannot be the guiding criteria because even evil desires can “tend to fulfill other desires” if the “other desires” are predominantly evil to begin with.

What about the “no harm, no foul” policy?

Take the desire to cheat on one’s spouse as an example. Alonzo might argue that “people generally” have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to infidelity, but there are at least two angles I think we need to consider. For one, I’m not sure it’s true that “people generally” have many and strong reasons to promote such an aversion. At first glance, it seems to me that single people have no such reason. I suppose one could invoke the phenomenon of collateral damage and claim that even single people have such reason, because infidelity can lead to expensive trials that burden the legal system and cause serious psychological damage, especially when they are children involved. Even still, it seems a bit of a stretch to claim that single people or those committed to non-monogamous relationships have any reason to promote an aversion to infidelity.

What does it mean to say that we should “promote an aversion to infidelity,” anyways? Should we spread anti-infidelity propaganda? This is in fact what happens in other instances. For example, you might see a poster at a bus stop which condemns bigotry against homosexuals and other minorities. On further reflection, I don’t recall ever once seeing a poster that condemns infidelity. Yet, our culture is literally saturated with posters and propaganda that condemn bigotry against minorities. What, if anything, can we infer from this?

Further, could a “bad desire” actually be beneficial to the agent? Recall that desires cannot thwart or fulfill other desires unless acted upon. What of various arguments for the psychological benefits of sexual fantasy? Here we at least potentially have a class of desires which would tend to thwart other desires if acted upon, but would actually tend to fulfill other desires when not acted on. In the case of married individuals, sexual fantasies constitute genuine desires for infidelity – desires I’m guessing Alonzo Fyfe would say “people generally” have reason to condemn – yet, on what grounds?

Where is the justification for the across-the-board policy of condemning desires that tend to thwart other desires? Since desires are brain states, isn’t this simply the desirist version of the thoughtcrime objection atheists often level towards Christianity? To that end, Luke remarks,

Christianity [claims] that we are ruled by an all-powerful dictator who convicts us of thoughtcrime and will torture us if we do not bow before him – like an everlasting Jafar with unlimited wishes.

What, exactly, is the difference between Jesus condemning adultery in the heart and the desirist condemning adultery in the brain?

Atoms, Morality, Desirism & Language

That desirism is not a moral theory is a common objection, one that its founder Alonzo Fyfe handles in a systematic way. Today, I will why I believe Alonzo’s handling of this objection fails. I suppose it would be best to dive right in with some actual examples of the objection:

What I’m getting at is that although Desirism perfectly explains human behavior towards morality, I just don’t see how it can help us determine the state of morality itself.
[Steven, Morality in the Real World 04: The Scrooge Problem, October 5, 2010]

The theory claims that desires that tend to fulfill other desires are good and desires that tend to thwart other desires are bad. Now, is this morally good and morally bad and if so, on what grounds does the claim rest? If it’s not morally good or bad, the what does the theory claim is morally good and morally bad? If there are no such claims, then I have a hard time to see it as a moral theory. I’m asking this since when I read the links in the old FAQ it seemed to me that the theory is more a description of how things work or how you can go about to get your desires fulfilled (by manipulating others desires so they fit yours) than a theory which tells you what you ought and not ought to do (since it’s morally wrong or morally right).
[Björn, The Ultimate Desirism FAQ, August 18, 2010]

I would say the greatest objection to desirism is that it’s not a moral theory at all.
[Kaelik, The Greatest Objection to Desirism (part 1), September 11, 2010]

Those are three typical examples of the objection among literally dozens. A slightly different version of the objection is provided by Richard Wein, who argues that desirism is a moral theory, because Fyfe expresses desirism in moral terms, but that Fyfe redefines the meaning of moral terms:

The problem with desirism (as a moral theory) is that it redefines the meaning of moral terms, and then conflates its own meaning with the ordinary meaning of those terms, hence committing a fallacy of equivocation.
[Richard Wein, The Greatest Objection to Desirism (part 1), September 13, 2010]

While his objection is expressed differently, Richard appears to concur with the general spirit of the previous three objections, in the sense that Alonzo is not using moral terms in the way they have been traditionally used. Despite the fact that a very high number of intelligent people have voiced similar objections, Alonzo replied to Richard by stating that desirism uses moral terms conventionally:

…in desire utilitarianism, moral terms are being used in substantially the same way that moral terms had been used. [Alonzo Fyfe, Moral Definitions: The Great Distraction, comment April 20, 2009 10:53 AM]

I think Alonzo’s reply is blatantly false, but let’s hold off on that for now. Since objections like the aforementioned seem to be in abundance and do not appear to be on the decline, we can charitably assume that Alonzo has addressed them before, and indeed, he has. I point the reader to the following examples of Alonzo’s various replies to what he calls “The Great Distraction” in moral discourse:

What people take to be different moral theories is, in fact, different moral languages. Realism and anti-realism no more contradict each other than Einstein’s theory of relativity in German contradicts Einstein’s theory of relativity in Chinese. They appear to contradict each other because both theories use the same terms. So, “Moral properties do not exist” in one language appears to contradict “Moral properties do exist” in another language. However, they are different language (as opposed to different theories) precisely because they use two different meanings of the term “Moral properties”.

Here’s the argument as I see it.

Person 1: Choose your definition of ‘morality’.

Person 2: (Chooses a definition).

Person 1: Now, defend that definition as the correct definition.

Person 2: I cannot.

Person 1: Then we can throw out that definition of morality.

I take this to be logically equivalent to the following.

Person 1: Choose your language for expressing Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Person 2: I choose German

Person 1: Now, defend that language as the correct language for Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Person 2: I cannot.

Person 1: Then we can throw out Einstein’s theory of relativity.

[Alonzo Fyfe, Choosing a Moral Language]

In another post, Alonzo elaborates thus:

It is true that public discussions of morality have focused heavily on questions of definitions. One question I often hear is, “Why should I accept your definition of what good is?” One form of rebuttal I often encounter is, “That’s true under your definition but that’s not necessarily true under this other definition over there.”

When it comes to moral theory, I consider questions about definition to be the great distraction. Questions of definition are this ichthyosaurus sized red herring that derails far too many conversations about morality and gets people wasting huge amounts of time dealing with issues that are not legitimate issues.

If a theory is sound, then it should be a theory that can be translated into any language. Einstein’s theory should be translatable into Chinese, Spanish, Croatian, and any other language on Earth without damaging the theory at all. Speakers of a language might need to invent a few new terms to conveniently handle all of the concepts. However, languages are inventions anyway. In any given language, new terms are invented for conveniently discussing new subjects every day.

Imagine somebody presenting a theory at a conference, and presenting it in English. Then imagine, after the presentation, somebody says, “Okay, your theory sounds great in English, but why should I accept English as my primary language? You have not given me one single, solitary piece of evidence as to why I should change my primary language from French into English.”

The response to that type of question would be to ask the speaker, “What on earth are you talking about?”

The problem in ethics – the “great distraction” – is that a lot of people have gotten it into their heads that this type of response actually makes sense. The moral theorist delivers his theory, then somebody in the audience asks, “Why should I accept your language as my primary language?” and far too many people in the audience turn to the speaker as if that person has just asked an intelligible question that the speaker should be able to answer.
[Alonzo Fyfe, Moral Definitions: The Great Distraction]

Along similar lines, Alonzo writes,

There is, or has been, a movement in philosophy that suggests that philosophy look at ordinary language in order to make sense of the world in which we live. However, I have never found any particular merit in that view. Language is an invention – and a rather sloppy invention at that. There is no reason to believe that language is a perfect descriptor of reality such that, if a theory of how the universe is does not fit our language – that it is our theory of how the universe is that must change. Rather, I would argue that it is our language that must change.

Similarly, there is no law of language that prohibits people from taking shortcuts with language. There is no reason to require that native speakers use a sentence such as, “Andrew desires that he drink a beer” when native speakers can easily reduce this to a much more manageable phrase, “Andrew wants a beer.”

Native speakers can easily figure out the rest.

The real question to answer is not whether the theory best fits our language (with the assumption that if it does not then it is the theory – and not language – that must change). The question to answer is whether the theory provides a way to explain and predict human behavior. [Alonzo Fyfe, Desires And Ordinary Language]

Lastly, and perhaps most recently, Alonzo tells us,

… As I have said before, it’s merely a debate over which language to adopt – over whether an essay on desirism should be written in French or English.

Specifically, a dispute about whether to use moral terms to refer to intrinsic value, or whether to use the term “moral” to refer to what we can say about things like murder, rape, theft, fraud, abortion, capital punishment, homosexuality, incest, genocide, war, self defense, freedom of speech, separation of church and state, democracy, conscription, trial by jury, ex post facto laws, slavery, negligence, abuse, recklessness, vandalism, and these types of issues without making stuff up.

Because all we would be doing in that debate is arguing over which language is correct. And it is absolutely absurd to get into a long detailed discussion over whether “English” is “the one proper and correct language” or over whether “French” is more correct than “English.”
[Alonzo Fyfe, Morality in the Real World 04: The Scrooge Problem, comment 10-6-2010]

Well. There’s quite a bit to digest in all that, I admit, but I think it’s fair to say that Alonzo’s objection is the same in each case: he claims the objections are purely semantic.

Now, I agree with Alonzo that debates over language are essentially useless. I agree that language is just a messy convention that cannot escape arbitrary assignment. I agree with Alonzo that language is irrelevant so long as our theory provides a way to explain and predict behavior. The question I have is, are the aforementioned objections purely semantic? Are questions of definition dismissible as distractions? I say no, and to illustrate why, let’s appeal to a favorite example of Alonzo’s to form an analogy: the atom.

The original definition of atom was “uncuttable” and implied the claim that non-reducible units of matter exist. Right off the bat, we should note that such is an “objective” or empirical claim, that is, a claim about the real world; a claim that can be tested. It turns out that, in haste, scientists assigned the word “atom” to units of matter that were in fact reducible. Scientists were wrong. Today, atom doesn’t denote “uncuttable,” it denotes an object with a nucleus of protons and neutrons surrounded by a cloud of electrons. Due to empirical observations which proved that the previous definition of atom was faulty, that definition has become deprecated. Scientists haven’t stopped using the word atom, and I would imagine that Alonzo hasn’t, either. Further, I would state that he is under no obligation to do so.

What about morality?

For thousands of years, the accepted definition of morality has been something like “that which is right or wrong on its own merit regardless of what anybody thinks about the matter,” and implied that something like “intrinsic rightness and wrongness” exists. Much like the situation with scientists being wrong about the atom, Alonzo might claim that, in haste, people assigned the word “morality” to entities that did not in fact exist in the real world. According to Alonzo at least, today, morality doesn’t denote “intrinsic rightness or wrongness,” it denotes a relationship between desires and states of affairs. As with the atom, the former definition of “morality” has become deprecated. Philosophers and laypeople haven’t stopped using the word morality, so – since I just stated that Alonzo is under no obligation to stop using atom – why would I claim that Alonzo is obligated to stop using morality?

Is there a real difference here?

I believe there is. In the case of atom, science proved that the original definition was inadequate. However, neither scientists nor Alonzo have proven that the original definition of morality is inadequate. In the case of morality, Alonzo simply disregards the matter, and asserts without justification that “morality” should no longer refer to intrinsic rightness or wrongness. In the case of atom, empirical confirmation preceded and justified the deprecation. In the case of morality, nothing besides Alonzo’s arbitrary assertion precedes the deprecation. It is unjustified.

I ask: if some writer came up and asked us to stop using the word “lepton” to denote the components of an electron, what would be our reaction? Would we be acting outside of reason to ask this writer to justify their claim?

Similarly, when a writer comes up and asks us to stop using the word “morality” to denote intrinsic rightness or wrongness, would we be acting outside of reason to ask this writer to justify their claim?

Scientific Anti-Realism?

Modern society is so entrenched in scientific realism and scientism that I just assumed intelligent people had no viable options other than aligning with those camps or being ridiculed. Enter the philosophy of scientific anti-realism.

I can hear the insults now: “Science works you jackass!” “Oh great, another Jesus-lovin’ science denier!” “Tell that to the computer you just used to type this POS blog post you crea-tard!”

From the little bit I’ve read on this so far, one of the central premises of scientific anti-realism seems to be something like: That our best scientific theories are successful is no warrant to believe they are true.

Now that’s an interesting concept. As it turns out, Hawking’s new book The Grand Design covers this concept in semi-thorough detail. I get the idea from their goldfish analogy that the authors actually do embrace some degree of scientific anti-realism. If not, perhaps they want to cut certain debates off at the knees.

If indeed our universe was akin to a round bowl, we could have accurate theories that described an inaccurate reality. Their model-dependent realism we discussed in the last post seems to acknowledge precisely this fact. It prefers utility over truth as the object of concern. This approach has the bonus of sidestepping seemingly intractable, sophistry-prone debates over what is “really real.”

One author elaborated thus:

Opposed to scientific realism are a variety of antirealisms, including phenomenalism and empiricism. Recently two others, instrumentalism and constructivism, have posed special challenges to realism. Instrumentalism regards the objects of knowledge pragmatically, as tools for various human purposes, and so takes reliability (or empirical adequacy) rather than truth as scientifically central. A version of this, fictionalism, contests the existence of many of the objects favoured by the realist and regards them as merely expedient means to useful ends. Constructivism maintains that scientific knowledge is socially constituted, that ‘facts’ are made by us. Thus it challenges the objectivity of knowledge, as the realist understands objectivity, and the independent existence that realism is after. Conventionalism, holding that the truths of science ultimately rest on man-made conventions, is allied to constructivism. [source]

Well. When I question claims like, “4.5 billion calendar years have passed since Earth began to exist,” I’m appealing to one or more premises of scientific anti-realism. I agree strongly with the claim, “the inductive track-record of science gives us good reasons to expect even our most successful scientific theories to be proven false in the fullness of time.” This sentiment is exactly what motivated the post, Why Aren’t Less Science Students Atheists?

Of course, in the same way I’m neither a Republican nor a Democrat, I accept one or more premises of scientific realism, too. For example, I agree that theories of motion correlate to things that exist in a mind-independent world. So how do I decide which approach to take at any given time? That depends on the science in question, and the presence or absence of assumed premises and unknown variables. If we’re talking something like observational science, I tend to lean more towards realism. If we’re talking something like theoretical physics or origins science, I tend to lean more towards anti-realism. The latter are inherently fuzzier.

As one website quips humorously,

The realism and antirealism debate asks questions about the very core of the scientific method… Whilst a student performing an experiment to determine the acidity of lemons should not worry too much, areas such as quantum physics are questioning how we see the universe. [source]

This all ties in to my penchant for conservatively-stated claims. Continuing the “4.5 billion calendar years have passed since Earth began to exist” example, my anti-realist leanings prompt me to frown. We don’t actually know that 4.5 billion calendar years have passed since Earth began to exist. We know that rocks have varying amounts of chemicals in them, and we proceed from a set of assumptions accordingly.

On the other hand, I think the claim, “lighter objects fall at the same speed as heavier objects” refers to a mind-independent reality we can all observe. We can observe and repeat this to our heart’s content. We don’t need to rely on any assumptions or unknown variables. The claim “objects fall at the same speed regardless of weight” is a helluva lot more airtight than the claim “4.5 billion calendar years have passed since Earth began to exist,” if you ask me.

Again, I can hear the insults: “Beat it you little sophist! Beat it!” “Oh, so do you doubt gravity too, you fool?” “You are at war with facts!”

Whatever helps people feel superior, I suppose.

Your Opinions Requested: On Is/Ought

A buddy of mine often reminds me of how much he likes short posts, so here's a quick one on a philosophical classic: the Is/Ought distinction.

In my experience, the person who says, "You ought to do X" in response to some desire Y is saying something that reduces to, "I believe that if you do X, you shall fulfill desire Y." Example: your desire is to go surfing, and your neighbor offers you a ride to the beach. If you take the ride (X), you'll likely fulfill the desire to go surfing (Y). One might say you ought to take the ride. This is ought in the pragmatic sense.

What would make "you ought to take the ride" true? In my opinion, it is the juxtaposition of 1) the fact of a desire to go surfing, and 2) the means of fulfilling that desire.

However, in my experience, the person who says, "You ought not X" in response to some desire Y is saying something that reduces to, "Even though it would fulfill your desire Y, X is not the right thing to do." Example: you desire your neighbor's goat, and when your mother discovers your intentions, she uses the tool of condemnation to plant within you an aversion to stealing. IOW, she says some variant of, "you ought not X." This is ought in the moral sense.

In your opinion, what would make "you ought not steal your neighbor's goat" true?

A Quest For Second Best

Excepting cases where one spreads oneself too thin, I believe versatility is a strength. Accordingly, a writer that argues from the fields of epistemology, science, history and morality has a better chance of making a strong case than, say, a writer that argues from only one or two of those fields. Last year, I spent most of my time writing arguments that revolved around epistemology and science. It's not that I hadn't been thinking about morality or history in between, it's just that, for whatever reason, I rarely felt compelled to write about them – especially morality. 

Bloggers who obsess over their hits do their writing a disservice if you
ask me. On the one hand, if you write for others, you're just a slave. On the
other hand, if you aren't responsive to your readers' interests,
it's likely that you'll lose their interest. I don't check TWIM's stats often, but when I do, I look for spikes in readership. Last year, I noticed that almost without fail, spikes correlated to posts about morality. This observation – along with the observation that many atheists are very concerned about morality in general – has compelled me to write more about morality. 

So, this year, I've been reading and writing arguments that revolve almost exclusively
around morality, specifically, Alonzo Fyfe's desire utilitarianism, and Divine Command Theory to a lesser extent. Over the past six months, the arguments I've read and wrote have led me to what I believe to be a logically-valid, undeniable argument for DCT's superiority over any other moral theory. As such, I state confidently today that all contemplation of "the best moral theory" is actually a quest for second best.

Arrogant, you think? Ignorant, perhaps? At least a little presumptuous? Though you wouldn't be the first to level such strong words against me, I'll still voice an emphatic "no" to all three counts, and if you can prove me wrong, I'll gladly retract every word.

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