This was originally posted at Secular Perspectives.

Here’s something that occurred to me recently. It’s nearly-trivial, but I found it interesting.

The reason a subjective statement, like “Beethoven’s ninth is his best symphony” is subjective is that a) it refers mental state, and b) that mental state can vary from person to person.

But it can be turned into an objective statement by simply saying whose mind it refers to: “Smith thinks that Beethoven’s ninth symphony is his best”. This is an objective statement, and its truth or falsehood can be ascertained simply by asking Smith. In a few years, maybe we’ll even have scanners that can read the answer in Smith’s brain.

Or instead of specifying a particular subject to whom the statement applies, we can specify a class of people, e.g., “Most music critics think that Beethoven’s ninth is his best”, or “Nobody likes being humiliated” (vs. “humiliation is bad”).

One consequence of this is that it helps put morality on a reality-based footing: a question like “should the US intervene in the Ivory Coast?” seems hopelessly subjective, but we can at least ask questions like, “how many Americans think the US should intervene?” and “how many Ivorians want the US to intervene?”. These questions, and their answers, are called polls, and they’re used all the time. (I’m not saying that complex moral questions should be decided by polling. But polls can provide an objective underpinning to moral arguments. For instance, if 98% of Ivorians hated Americans and wanted the US to stay the hell away, that would undercut arguments like “we should move in: we’ll be greeted as liberators”.)

Secular morality is often attacked for being too subjective. I hope the above helps correct that perception. The whole point of having a system of morality is, presumably, to improve the universe in some way, and hopefully allow us to be happier and get along with each other in the process. What “better” means, above, is subjective, but at the very least we can see what people think, and what most of us can agree on.

Justifying Evil

The thing I like about the various e-book reader apps for [insert mobile computing device here[1]] is that they allow me to read the first chapter of most recently-published books, without all the bother of having to brush the Cheeto dust off my shirt, putting on pants, and emerge from my mom’s basement into the burning light of day to go to the library.

And so, when Denyse O’Leary, William Dembski’s official in charge of dispelling all positive stereotypes about Canada, recommended Rabbi Moshe Averick’s book Nonsense of the Highest Order: The Confused and Illusory World of the Atheist, I downloaded and read the sample chapter. Continue reading “Justifying Evil”

Morality Debate, Part 3

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Matt’s response:

Matt: It’s absurd to think that Moses was required for people to know that killing is wrong. We live in society, we interact with each other, and we can see the consequences of our actions. That’s all it takes.

He agrees that truth is truth, regardless of what anyone thinks.

Truth is an emergent property of the universe. Morality arises from the interaction of thinking, reasoning beings in society.

Jacobse clarifies that if we know killing is wrong, it’s not because Moses delivered that law. He rambles on for a while about “narrative”, and how atheists can discover moral truths, before coming back to his central point: that he wants there to be an ultimate authority for what’s right.

He adds that he could enjoy a beer with Matt.

And then he turns right around and blames eugenics on “the atheist experiment” in the 20th century. This is the beginning of the Godwin theme that will make up most of his argument for the rest of the debate.

Truth has a personal dimension

If I understand correctly, he’s saying that truth is a person. Which is patent nonsense.

Stay tuned for part 4, in which Matt FAQs up the priest.

(See what I did there? “FAQs him up”? No? Should I have gone with “Kung FAQ grip” instead?)

Morality Debate, Part 2

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Hans Jacobse’s opening statement:

The first problem comes less than two minutes in: “Atheism, properly understood…” In other words, “I’m about to tell you what you believe”, not a promising beginning for a fruitful debate.

He continues:

Atheism, properly understood, allows for no objective existence of anything non-material, not made from matter. Philosophical materialism is the philosophical ground of atheism.

One word: software.

Software is non-material. It is, if I understand the definition that Jacobse gives later on, transcendent. On one hand, you can change a book by altering the ink pattern on its pages; on the other hand, you can convert the ink patterns to air vibrations or a flow of electrons, and still have the same book.

This is not some abstruse academic question. It is a practical matter that comes up every time you agree to a software license that says you own the DVD, but not the program on the DVD. It keeps an army of intellectual property lawyers employed. So I hope Jacobse isn’t saying that atheists deny the existence of non-material things like music, mathematics, and personalities.

I would argue as a historian that atheism cannot exist except in a Christian society. I would argue that. It’s actually an outgrowth of our Christian heritage.

I’m sure this will come as a shock to atheists in Japan, India, and Israel, to pick but a few.

does atheism even acknowledge the independent existence of the transcendent, or any being, or even principle apart from matter, apart from that which can be quantified using the tools of science? The answer, at least if the atheist is true to his premises, must be no.

Again, thank you for telling me what I believe. What would I do without you?

You can’t see it in the video, but there’s a mounting pile of strawmen behind his podium.

He goes on to trot out the “no ultimate authority” boogeyman.

But the value he [the atheist] places on one moral act over another is necessarily derivative, which is to say dependent on a view of the universe, of nature and reality, that is not his own.

In other words, we’re incapable of figuring things out on our own.

But even other religions recognize what I consider an elementary fact of the universe: man cannot live by bread alone, which is to say that man is more than the molecules that shape his body.

This seems trivially true, given that the molecules that make up our bodies get recycled every so often, even while we continue to be the same person. And no one argues that a given person is equivalent to a few bucks’ worth of water and other chemicals. The arrangement of those chemicals is crucial.

I think what he’s tap-dancing around is that if the universe is “merely” arrangements of matter, then there’s no magic, and he wants there to be magic.

Truth is a category of existence. A transcendent category of existence, which is to say truth exists apart from any comprehension that I may have of it.

I think this is as close as he ever gets to defining the term “transcendent”.

The truth, and thus morality, can never escape a sort of continuous relativism in the atheist paradigm. Imprisoned, that is, to the shifting winds of the day.

I’ve addressed this elsewhere. Even if our discussions of morality don’t include an ultimate supreme authority, our morality won’t be arbitrary because it’s tethered to reality: we can look at specific actions and events, be it the Holocaust or a parking ticket, and decide whether we like those outcomes, and what sorts of rules we can come up with to codify them.

The most maddening part about this presentation was the way that Jacobse erected an army of straw men, punctuated with the occasional present-company-excluded, and ignored the points that Dillahunty made in his opening statement just prior.

But it gets worse.

Morality Debate, Part 1

Matt Dillahunty’s opening statement in the debate on “The Origin of Human Morality” at UMBC on Wednesday:

He addresses two common misconceptions about morality: first, that secular morality borrows from religious morality. And second, that secular morality does not include an external authoritative source for morality, and that this is somehow a problem.

He argues that since religions disagree with each other on moral questions, so it is not the case that a deity has shown up and given us a clear set of moral rules. And even if a god did show up and clearly tell us what its values are, how can we tell whether those values are correct? (See the Euthyphro dilemma).

We should, he says, seek correct answers, not necessarily easy ones.

Conclusions Arrived at After Watching a Bunch of College Students, Both Theist and Atheist, Discussing the Origin and Nature of Morality

We all want simple rules by which to live. But simple rule sets are simplistic. Failing that, we want a simple set of principles by which to make rules by which to live. But those are usually arbitrary, and often fail to take into account that people want different things for many reasons, some good and some bad.

There aren’t any simple answers. There aren’t even any simple ways to get at the answers.

And as I said earlier, morality, like the value of a dollar, is an evolving emergent phenomenon.

Nun Excommunicated Over Abortion

The Arizona Republic is reporting that a nun at a Catholic hospital was disciplined and excommunicated for allowing an abortion that saved a woman’s life:

A Catholic nun and longtime administrator of St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix was reassigned in the wake of a decision to allow a pregnancy to be ended in order to save the life of a critically ill patient.

The decision also drew a sharp rebuke from Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, head of the Phoenix Diocese, who indicated the woman was “automatically excommunicated” because of the action.

The article goes on to say that “The patient had a rare and often fatal condition in which a pregnancy can cause the death of the mother”, and that pulmonary hypertension was involved.

“In this tragic case, the treatment necessary to save the mother’s life required the termination of an 11-week pregnancy,” [hospital vice president Suzanne] Pfister said.

So. Fetus poses a clear and present danger to the life of the mother. First trimester of pregnancy, so the fetus isn’t viable outside the womb. Throw in some rape or incest (which may conceivably have occurred, but the patient’s identity hasn’t been released, for privacy reasons) and you’ve got the textbook description of a justifiable abortion, it would seem.

But still, the Catholic church — run by a bunch of people who’ll never never be put in this predicament themselves, what with not having a uterus — prefers to dogmatically maintain that abortion isn’t acceptable, even under these circumstances, not even as a regrettable but necessary evil.

The article doesn’t say what this policy is based on, save that the fetus is “a human life”. But given the Catholic church’s history of encouraging and abetting the termination of human lives — Saracens, Jews, heretics, Protestants, etc. — there’s got to be more to it than that. Unfortunately, I suspect that the “more to it” is “a bunch of our ivory-tower mental masturbators derived it from our magic book.”

I also can’t help noting some sexism: for decades, men in the organization rape and abuse children, and they get a slap on the wrist before being shuffled off to another parish to avoid embarrassing the church. But now a woman authorizes an abortion — due to, I assume, compassion for the mother — and is immediately reprimanded and kicked out of the club. Would you like to super-size your standard and make it a double?

I remember reading an article about attitudes toward gays in the Catholic church. The investigator found that policymakers in the upper echelons were a lot harsher on teh gays than were priests who dealt with gays in their parishes and heard their confessions. It’s easier to condemn someone when you never have to meet them.

I suspect that something like this happened here. McBride, the nun who was disciplined, made her decision in large part out of compassion for the patient. The bishop who excommunicated her never had to meet the patient beforehand.

If my suspicion is true, then that means that the morality formulated by the higher-ups may look good on paper, but were the rubber meets the road, the rank and file don’t abide by it. That’s a sign of an impractical morality in bad need of a reality check. Unfortunately, if the Catholic church had any interest in reality, they wouldn’t believe in gods and miracles.

Update, Mon May 17 14:10:29 2010: Fixed a missing in a sentence.