The Moral Arguments: A Rejoinder

Recently I began a delightful discussion/debate concerning two versions of the moral argument for the existence of God with my friend Tyler Dalton McNabb. His opening post can be read here. My first response can be read here and his followup response here.

In response to Tyler’s latest post, I’d like to start by pointing out that there are two central issues at play in this discussion. One regards the nature of morality itself and the other regards the “proper function” of our faculties and our ability to access truth.

As of right now, I hold firm to the position that the true nature of morality is undecidable. I contend that this is enough to neutralize the classical moral argument, so I’ll focus more on the epistemological version.

Now, while I hesitate to agree that belief in objective moral values and duties is warranted (since “warranted” is a technical term that still isn’t adequately understood), I will admit that belief in objective moral values and duties can be reasonable. Where I think the epistemological argument truly fails is premise (1):

If NE is true, belief in objective moral values and duties cannot be warranted.

Tyler conceded that premise (1), so stated, is false, since it is possible on NE that our faculties be such that they can access truth and form corresponding true beliefs. What Tyler seems to resort to is something like the following:

Let \alpha represent the actual world (at least with respect to our perspective). Furthermore, let W be the event that belief in objective moral values and duties is warranted on NE in \alpha. Then

P(W) < \frac{1}{2}

which says that the probability of W being the case is less than 50%. If this is the case, then it is more reasonable to think that one is not warranted in believing in objective moral values and duties in \alpha. But is this really the case?

First, I’m not sure that there is a well-defined probability measure here. For instance, if there are infinitely many universes, then infinitely many of them have beings with the right cognitive equipment to access truth.

Second, Tyler says that he sees no reason to think that our cognitive faculties are reliable. This is strange to me, since I see every (well maybe not every) reason to think that our faculties are reliable. Why?

(a) This may be a necessary part of consciousness. That is, being conscious may very well entail the ability to form true beliefs and to check them on some level.

(b) We can test our faculties against real life. The fact that we don’t die and the fact that we can successfully navigate our world environment attest to the fact that our brains produce true beliefs.

For these reasons, I think the epistemological argument fails to go through. It is entirely possible, even likely, that our cognitive faculties are reliable even on NE. At this point, I’ll now pass the ball back to Tyler.


Bill Nye vs Ken Ham: A Break Down of the Debate – Part 1

Lately the interweb has been abuzz with anticipation and now reflection upon the debate between Bill Nye and creationist Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis. As expected, the debate was more polarizing than productive. As far as the actual debate, however, Nye won by a landslide. But that’s easy to say (or type), so let me tell you why Nye was the clear winner.

I’ll analyze each interlocutor in turn.

Ken Ham: Opening Statement

Despite my distaste for Ham, I’ll admit that he started out in a promising way.  He clearly laid out the debate topic, which was

Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?

From here one would hope, if not expect, that one arguing in the affirmative would proceed to marshal evidence and justification for creation being a viable model of origins. Unfortunately, as soon as Ham sets up an appropriate trajectory, he deviates from it to address a completely different matter, namely, whether creationists can be scientists. He laments that secularists have hijacked the term “science” and then proceeds to introduce us to several scientists who happen to be Biblical creationists. While I can understand that Ham is trying to dispel a misconception, it seems that he is bordering on an argument from authority. The salient issue, however, is not whether creationists can be scientists, but whether the idea of creation itself is (a) scientific in any relevant sense and (b) whether it holds up under scrutiny (of any kind).

Ham seems to get back on track (briefly) by rightly pointing out the need to define terms correctly. This is always important for fruitful communication. Beginning with “science”, Ham distinguishes between observational science and what he calls historical science. Observational science is what produces technology, whereas historical science obviously deals with past events that cannot be directly observed.  Under such a distinction, origins would clearly belong to the latter category. But is there really such a fine distinction? It is true that we cannot directly observe past events, but that does not mean that observational science is not involved in studying the past. What we observe are the clues of the present. Past events get encoded (more or less) into the future. We observe this and then attempt to work the “encoding path” backwards to the event in question.  This is how crime scene investigation works. Experts in arson can tell a lot about how a fire started, how fast it burned, where it started, and many other things by examining the remains of burnt houses and buildings. The event is in the past, but many important bits of information are encoded that can be deciphered.  Yes, Ham is right, no one was there to witness our origins, which is why we are trying to determine the best explanation and model.

Ham seems to think that this gives him an out. No one was there to witness these things, therefore it is legitimate and viable to simply base one’s views on (a very particular interpretation of) the Bible. While I will agree to the importance of world views and starting assumptions, Ham has not demonstrated the legitimacy of using an ancient religious text as a foundational starting point.

After rambling on about there being a difference in philosophical world views, Ham ends with a doozy.  He literally concludes that

Creation is the only viable model of historical science confirmed by observational science in today’s modern scientific era (emphasis mine).

Ummmm…. what?  At no point in his presentation did he present anything remotely close to evidence for this audacious conclusion.  He spent the entire time complaining about secularist hijackers and concluded that creation is the only viable model of origins.

So, Ham had a promising start, but went down in a ball of flames. In the next post, I’ll critique Nye’s opening presentation.

Intelligent Design 1

In my quest to understand the true nature of reality, the ongoing dispute between theism and atheism is a regular subject of interest.  Perhaps most noteworthy at present is the ‘battle’ over intelligent design.  Is it a science or is it religion in disguise?  Some deride it as a waste of time and a joke, others think it something to be addressed, but mistaken, and still others insist that it provides compelling evidence in favor of theism.  I am of the persuasion that intelligent design is scientific in nature and worthy of consideration.  As to the correctness of the endeavor, I’m skeptical, but willing to give it a fair hearing.  This is what I would like to do in a series of blogs aimed at both understanding and critiquing intelligent design at a fundamental level.  Since my background is in mathematics, I will primarily focus on this aspect of it as well as its philosophical underpinnings.  My focus will be primarily on the work of Bill Dembski, a mathematician and philosopher championing the fundamental notions of intelligent design.  Input from other disciplines, however, is most welcome.

To get things started, it will be important to have a commonly understood vocabulary.  Since design is the backbone of intelligent design, understanding this term is a logical launching point.  So, the question is: What is design?  In their paper, Wesley Elsberry and Jeffrey Shallit (see here) criticize Dembski, in part, on the grounds that he gives no positive notion of what design is.  In his book, The Design Inference, Dembski gives a negative definition of design as the complement of regularity and chance.  In No Free Lunch, he gives a more process-oriented account of design:

(1)  A designer conceives a purpose.

(2)  To accomplish that purpose, the designer forms a plan.

(3)  To execute the plan, the designer specifies building materials and assembly instructions.

(4)  Finally, the designer or some surrogate applies the assembly instructions to the building materials.

Also, although I have not read Dembski’s book Intelligent Design, I cannot find (with the help of the index) any place where he explicitly defines design.  So, this is task number one; namely, to supply an adequate definition for design.  Anyone familiar with this topic is encouraged to contribute.  For my part, here is something of a first draft:

Definition – Design:  A system that is arranged by an intensional agent.

Let’s figure this out.

Neat Post Related to Formal Systems

Terence Tao is a brilliant mathematician whom I follow.  He posts about a lot of very interesting mathematical topics.  I found this neat post related to formals systems.  The beginning of the article should hopefully be at least somewhat familiar based on what I have discussed, but it does get heavy pretty quickly.  Nevertheless, check it out and enjoy!

Definable subsets over (nonstandard) finite fields, and almost quantifier elimination

Enrichment Reading

The task I have determined to undertake here is a formidable one.  Despite this, I am excited about adding in some key works of David Lewis.  From Amazon:

David Lewis (1941- 2001) was Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University. His publications include Convention (reissued by Blackwell 2002), Counterfactuals (reissued by Blackwell 2000), Parts of Classes (1991), and of numerous articles in metaphysics and other areas.

The books I plan on reading are On the Plurality of Worlds and Counterfactuals.  Here is the description of former:

This book is a defense of modal realism; the thesis that our world is but one of a plurality of worlds, and that the individuals that inhabit our world are only a few out of all the inhabitants of all the worlds. Lewis argues that the philosophical utility of modal realism is a good reason for believing that it is true.

After putting forward the type of modal realism he favors, Lewis answers numerous objections that have been raised against it. These include an insistence that everything must be actual; paradoxes akin to those that confront naive set theory; arguments that modal realism leads to inductive skepticism, or to disregard for prudence and morality; and finally, sheer incredulity at a theory that disagrees so badly with common opinion. Lewis grants the weight of the last objection, but takes it to be outweighed by the benefits to systematic theory that acceptance of modal realism brings. He asks whether these same benefits might be gained more cheaply if we replace his many worlds by many merely ‘abstract’ representations; but concludes that all versions of this ‘ersatz modal realism’ are in serious trouble. In the final chapter, Lewis distinguishes various questions about trans-world identity, and argues that his ‘method of counterparts’ is preferable to alternative approaches.

Here is a description of the latter:

Counterfactuals is David Lewis’s forceful presentation of and sustained argument for a particular view about propositions which express contrary-to-fact conditionals, including his famous defense of realism about possible worlds. Since its original publication in 1973, it has become a classic of contemporary philosophy, and is essential reading for anyone interested in the logic and metaphysics of counterfactuals.

If it is not already obvious, the purpose of including these works is that they (especially the former) provide the philosophical groundwork underpinning Tegmark’s ideas.  As I mentioned before, the MUH is a form of modal realism and could be described as a mathematized version of Lewis’s philosophy.

Since I am already addressing Tegmark’s ideas along with Hofstadter’s I hope to not become bogged down by adding in more, but the relevance of Lewis’s work in this matter seems justification enough to shoulder the burden.  I hope everyone who reads this is as excited as I am to  engage these ideas!

Fear Not!

For the thousands of subscribers who read this blog, waiting on the edge for a new and latest post… Fear not!  Things have been a bit busy as of late and I am continually adding to and refining my project.  I will soon continue exploring MUH, but I also plan to incorporate a general investigation into the existence of God.

Also, if there are thousands of you out there… Let me hear from you.  It would be nice to have a little more interaction.  Just say’n 😉