No Problem Here

Dr. William Vallicella calls our attention to a post by Dr. Alan Rhoda in which Dr. Rhoda argues that the “problem of evil” is as much a difficulty for the atheist as for the theist. But Dr. Rhoda’s post, which Dr. V. calls a “good solid crack at it”, rests on the unwarranted assumption that the atheist will be as troubled as the theist by the notion that there might not be an objective basis for morality.

This is simply not the case, as I argue in this recent post, and as can be multiply confirmed by reading the positions staked out by such prominent atheist activists as Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins. There is a perfectly reasonable evolutionary account that can be given for why we have the moral intuitions we have — intuitions that are so strong, and so universal across cultural boundaries, that they can appear, evidently even to highly sophisticated thinkers, to have the weight of a priori truths. In a sense they could, I suppose, even be argued actually to have an objective existence — not in the theistic sense that Drs. Rhoda and Vallicella are plumping for, however, but rather in the sense that the adaptive advantage conferred by such moral intuitions, which is described more succinctly by game theory than theology, might be expected to apply quite repeatably to the evolutionary development of any sufficiently intelligent and social organisms. But that, in itself, is nothing more than an interesting fact about the world, and need not bear upon our moral judgments, which, as always, are up to us.


  1. bob koepp says

    Malcolm –
    I think I’m safe in saying that the vast majority of ethicists who believe morality has an objective basis don’t think that basis is theological. Also, they aren’t persuaded that evolved moral intuitions are the objective basis of morality — because they see clearly enough that basing substantive ethical propositions on an evolutionary footing runs smack into the is-ought gap. The fact that our moral judgments are “up to us” speaks to the question of moral freedom, but not to the question of whether those judgments comport with some standard that isn’t up to us.

    Posted February 5, 2007 at 10:22 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    I agree with all of that, except perhaps the extent to which it is possible to arrive at an “objective” grounding for morality that isn’t theological (I know that attempts have been made, such as utilitarianism, but I have yet to hear of a truly satisfactory approach). I’m not at all surprised that ethicists aren’t persuaded that evolved moral intuitions are the objective basis of morality, because I don’t think that a bedrock set of moral laws can be found anywhere, and I think that our evolved intuitions are as deep as it goes.

    The point I’m making here is that I deny the need for such an “objective” basis. I think that the assumption that such a basis must exist in the first place is simply due to the depth and power of our evolved intuitions. We think we can simply “see” that something is just, or moral, and the feeling is so convincing that we then assume that there must be some objective and eternal basis for that intuition – and there is, perhaps, in the sense that there is an objective and predictable adaptive value (in a strategic, game-theoretical sense) for the evolution of such intuitions, but that isn’t the sort of grounding most folks are looking for.

    I think that we can get along just fine with what we have.

    Posted February 5, 2007 at 11:39 am | Permalink
  3. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – You’ve now moved to a straightforward denial that ethics has an objective basis, and suggest that evolution has equipped us to embrace the illusion that it does have such a basis. Are you quite certain that ethical principles can’t be grounded in principles of practical/instrumental reasoning? Or do you perhaps think that reason also has no objective basis.

    Posted February 5, 2007 at 11:59 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says


    Well, I wouldn’t say I’ve “moved” to this position; I’m a long-time resident.

    I do indeed think that reason itself has its limits, around which it may be difficult for us to see (this is why I don’t find C.S. Lewis’s “Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism” argument convincing).

    There may of course be useful ethical systems that we can develop by reasoned argument, and indeed I think we ought to make such efforts; utilitarianism, for example, is a good try. But to insist on morality being grounded in some transcendent abstraction is, I think, both unnecessary and chimerical.

    Posted February 5, 2007 at 12:36 pm | Permalink
  5. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – Accepting that reason has its limits isn’t at all the same as denying that reason has an objective foundation. Are you suggesting that it is something other than an objective truth that modus ponens will reliably take us from truths to truths? Perhaps we’re wrong in thinking modus ponens a valid argument form, but I hope you appreciate how silly it would be to try to convince me of that by using modus ponens.

    Posted February 5, 2007 at 12:50 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says


    I’m all for reason; I try to use it every day. It is beyond my powers, though, to know whether reason itself ultimately has an “objective” foundation; in other words to know with certainty how far I may extrapolate beyond the workings of my own cognition. I do know that it is in our nature to cogitate in a way that apparently mirrors certain regularities of the observable world, as evidenced by what Eugene Wigner called “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences”. I also agree that when we consider propositions to be true, we can apply the method of modus ponens to arrive at related propositions that we also consider to be true. It all seems to work very nicely.

    In other words, I’m not denying that there might be an objective foundation for reason. But we think, in my opinion, with our brains, and they are nothing more than physical systems that process information according to patterns and methods that have been selected for their usefulness in modeling the world. There may be solid objective causes for the fact that our cognitive apparatus has evolved to work the way it does, and perhaps all sentient beings will turn out to have similar minds. But I see no trustworthy basis for any deeper claims.

    Posted February 5, 2007 at 1:10 pm | Permalink
  7. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – I think modus ponens maps truths to truths, regardless of whether we “consider” any of the propositions in questions to be true. That’s part of what it means for modus ponens to be an objectively valid rule of inference. That we think with brains selected to generate useful models, and that the truthiness of models is relevant to their being useful is an interesting feature about us and about the process of evolution. But it isn’t relevant to the question of whether modus ponens is in fact a valid rule of inference.

    Posted February 5, 2007 at 3:46 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    No, I disagree with the strength of your formulation. It seems to us that modus ponens has an objectively “truthy” quality (and I’ll be the first to admit that it seems as truthy as all get-out), but that seeming is itself the output of our physical cognitive apparatus. To insist on grounding it all in an alleged deeper level of reality is reaching too far, I think.

    In other words: it appears that we have cognitive tools that model certain regularites of the world. Among those are the ability to represent various features of the world, and their relationships, as propositions, and the ability to move from one such representation to another (presumably by various syntactical operations inside our skulls) in ways that we refer to as “propositional logic”. These tools and abilities are useful and adaptive, and from the inside they present the appearance of being much more than what they really are. But to insist that these skills and cognitive assets, in addition to being practical tools for getting along in the world, are “objectively valid”, is, I think, just giving free rein to a seductive intuition, and even if it were to be true I think such a view oversimplifies the relationship between our cognitive apparatus and the actual world.

    Posted February 5, 2007 at 4:00 pm | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    To put it another way: I don’t think there is any modus ponens “out there in the world”. It is an abstraction, one that our brains use to manipulate other abstractions in a productive way. But the way in which we gauge its usefulness and reliability is itself a product of our cognitive wiring, and we can no more get outside that framework to talk of what is truly “objective” than we can jump over our own knees.

    I think we have some difficulty here because we have some rather different axioms about the world.

    Posted February 5, 2007 at 4:15 pm | Permalink
  10. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – I’m wondering whether you think there’s any objective basis to anything. For example, am I “just giving free rein to a seductive intuition” when I assert, without qualification, that 2+2=4? Suppose we could establish with the best sort of evidence that we had evolved an arithmetic module. Would that somehow cast doubt on the proposition that 2+2=4?

    Posted February 5, 2007 at 4:22 pm | Permalink
  11. Malcolm says


    When you assert that 2 + 2 = 4, you are calling into play our concepts of numbers and the relationships between numbers. I share those concepts with you, and will agree that according to our shared notions of numbers, and for anyone else who shares them as well, 2 plus 2 will always equal 4. Where we may part company is over the question of whether numbers are an intrinsic feature of the external world, or are rather just part of how we make sense of it: a useful abstraction.

    Posted February 5, 2007 at 4:26 pm | Permalink
  12. Malcolm says

    As for whether I think there is any objective basis for anything, I do indeed “hae ma doots” about the objectiveness of such things as morals, numbers, logic, and so forth, although I do think that we come to those cognitive features as a result of our evolutionary history in an objectively real physical world, which must count for something. I simply don’t see the need to insist on the sort of objectivity you are arguing for; we can get along fine without it.

    Posted February 5, 2007 at 4:53 pm | Permalink
  13. bob koepp says

    I think 2+2=4 regardless of whether anybody has concepts of numbers, etc. In other words, 2+2=4 even for a rock, though the rock can have no appreciation of that fact.

    Posted February 5, 2007 at 4:53 pm | Permalink
  14. Malcolm says


    I realize you feel that way; you aren’t alone, of course. I agree that to us, 2 + 2 = 4 even for a rock, but it is my view that to insist further that the fact somehow exists independently of a mind to form the concept is overreaching. I don’t think numbers exist “out in the world”; I think they are a way in which we represent the world.

    Posted February 5, 2007 at 4:59 pm | Permalink
  15. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – I don’t think viewing arithmetical truths as objective commits one to the mind indpendent existence of numbers. And leaving numbers aside, how about quantities? Surely you don’t think that the ratios of masses of various physical objects depend on our conceptual schemes… or do you?

    Posted February 5, 2007 at 6:17 pm | Permalink
  16. Malcolm says


    I have to confess that I can’t quite see how arithmetical truths, which are all about numbers, can be objective if numbers themselves aren’t.

    I think I’m doing a bad job of communicating the view that I’m trying to express, which is simply that there is one physical world out there, and the abstract notions of number, morality, etc. that we use to organize our representations of it depend on us in a way that the raw physical world doesn’t.

    As for mass ratios, I don’t doubt that the masses are real enough, and that anyone who has the idea to assign numerical values to masses and calculate their ratios using a numerical model will always be able to do so. Masses will also continue to behave in a way that we can model with numbers if we like.

    How does that seem to you?

    Posted February 5, 2007 at 9:39 pm | Permalink
  17. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – I think there is, indeed, some failure to communicate, and I think it’s probably the result of some subtle differences in how we understand the notion of objectivity. I’m no Platonist who imagines that numbers exist in a way analogous to electrons and galxies — out there in the world waiting to be bumped into by sapient creatures. Numbers are abstract, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t objective truths about their properties and relations.

    My main purpose in pursuing this issue is that it does actually relate back to the question about whether ethics could have an objective basis. I’m not saying that there is such an objective basis, but I don’t think the fact that ethics is abstract in a way that electrons and galaxies are not should be taken as a reason to think the former is not objective.

    Posted February 5, 2007 at 10:34 pm | Permalink
  18. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    Well, there’s the nub of the issue, then; I think that we do have a subtle difference in the way we regard objectivity.

    I can imagine that there might be minds, utterly unlike ours, to whom the notion of number might never occur, and that leads me to think that numbers may be nothing more than a subjective, mind-dependent framework that we use to model the objective world. The truths about numerical relationships are implicit in the concept of numbers themselves, perhaps, so that any mind that wields the idea of numbers will find that the same rules apply, but I question the notion that any of it really exists in any objective way in the absence of minds to frame the concepts.

    “Objective” to me means that the thing in question exists in an observer-independent way, and I don’t think that the abstractions we are discussing fit that description. I find it hard to accept that if life had never appeared that there still would have been ethics, or arithmetic.

    I realize, though, that this view of mine is rather a minority position. And I don’t know it to be true, either; it’s just the direction in which my intuitions pull me. For all I know, consciousness itself may be what is primary in the Universe, and brings all the rest of it into being. But I doubt it.

    Posted February 5, 2007 at 11:33 pm | Permalink
  19. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – I see that different understandings of ‘objectivity’ do, indeed, infect our conversation. I think you are using ‘mind-dependence’ and ‘subjective’ as synonyms to contrast with ‘objective.’ I view mind-dependence as an issue separate from (but related to) objectivity.

    I think it is necessary to effect such a separation, or else the very _concept_ of objective judgments becomes incoherent. In arguing that we need the conceptual space of objective judgments, I don’t mean to prejudge whether ethics (or any specific judgments in any discursive domains) actually inhabit one or another region of that space. But the fact that ethical judgments are creatures of the mind, as are all judgments, can’t support the judgment that they lack an objective basis.

    Posted February 6, 2007 at 12:18 am | Permalink
  20. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    Well, certainly I don’t think I am in error to think of “subjective” and “objective” as antonyms.

    Yes, we form judgments as a result of contemplating the objective world. But the categories and abstractions that we imagine — and different sort of minds may imagine different sorts of abstractions — in order to model the world for the purpose of making such judgments are not necessarily objective features of the world themselves. That’s really all I’m saying.

    Posted February 6, 2007 at 12:44 am | Permalink
  21. bob koepp says

    Malcolm –
    Yes, ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ are antonyms, but they shouldn’t be equated with ‘mind-dependent’ and ‘mind-independent’ respectively. And yes, different sorts of abstractions might be made by different minds. I don’t think that undermines objectivity of relations defined over the abstractions in question. And I don’t think you really want to claim that judgments about the properties and relations of particular abstractions are not objective features of the world.

    It seems to me that you are harboring some notion to the effect that if we view abstractions or other mind-dependent phenomena as objective features of the world, then we open the door to dualism or worse. But I don’t think that follows at all. If, in order to avoid dualism or worse, one finds oneself denying that modus ponens is an objectively valid rule of inference, then I think one needs to reconsider one’s assumptions about mind-dependency and objectivity.

    That’s really all I’m saying.

    Posted February 6, 2007 at 7:56 am | Permalink
  22. Malcolm says


    Again, I am using the word “objective” to mean “observer-independent”: in other words, to mean that the phenomenon in question exists regardless of whether anyone ever bothers to look.

    You wrote:

    And yes, different sorts of abstractions might be made by different minds. I don’t think that undermines objectivity of relations defined over the abstractions in question.

    I don’t either, provided that the relations are in fact “defined”, as I have bolded above. This is the point: that it takes minds to do the defining when it comes to abstracta. I am suggesting that prior to such definition they have no objective existence at all.

    It isn’t really dualism I am resisting here (though I don’t buy that either), but ontological Platonism.

    Posted February 6, 2007 at 11:49 am | Permalink
  23. bob koepp says

    Malcolm — First, I think that ‘observer-independent’ needs to be understood in a way that should be familiar to psychologists. This requires being clear about the difference between third-person objectivity and first-person subjectivity. (Things are actually a bit more complicated than this, since there is no reason in principle why an introspector can’t adopt an objective attitude toward his/her own subjective states and processes — but it probably requires a good deal of practice, as the phenomenological psychologists emphasized.)

    It should also be clear that it isn’t only with respect to abstracta that “defining” takes minds — all definitions are the products of minds. The relevant question in the present context is whether there is anything to which definitions need to correspond, whether the phenomena constrain our definitions. And I think the answer, even with respect to abstracta, must be “Yes.” That’s all the foothold objectivism needs. My point is that you don’t need to deny the objectivity of abstracta to avoid ontological platonism, and that if you do deny the objectivity of abstracta, you generate problems that threaten to undermine your own arguments.

    Posted February 6, 2007 at 12:31 pm | Permalink
  24. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    Well, this is certainly an interesting conversation. I also think we aren’t as far apart as it may seem, and terminology can be very tricky in this area.

    Your remark about adopting an objective attitude toward subjective inner phenomena is interesting; let me ask if that objectivity could extend to other observers or is confined to the introspector. If the latter, that puts it in rather a grey zone as regards conventional usage of the term “objective”.

    I altogether agree that abstracta can be “objective” in the sense that all who are in on the definition, and who represent the same abstracta in their minds, will — no, must — agree on their properties, in just the way that we agree that 5 is prime. All I am holding out for is that 5 itself, however, does not objectively exist anywhere in the actual outer world, but is, rather, a convention that we define as part of our representation of that world.

    Posted February 6, 2007 at 12:55 pm | Permalink
  25. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – Based on many previous discussions here and at Bill V’s, I think we aren’t far apart on most substantive issues in this area. I think that’s why, when we do wrestle, it’s often about choosing terms and being clear about what is being connoted by particular choices.

    So, yes, terminology gets tricky in this area. For example, I don’t think it’s quite accurate to describe 5 (the number) as a “convention that we define as part of our representation of that [outer] world.” I’d suggest, instead, that 5 emerges as a formal property of a certain class of representational systems; and those systems need not even have the function/purpose of representing numeric data! If I were to attempt to be excruciatingly explicit about this, I’d probably decide that I should alter my own terminology.

    Regarding the interplay of first- and third-person perspectives…
    While introspective psychology is premised on the notion that it’s possible, with training and effort, for the introspector to be objective with respect to his/her own subjective experiences (i.e., to describe first-person experience as would a “mind reading” third-person observer), in non-introspective contexts, comprising the bulk of empirical psychological investigations, observers are strictly third-personal and do not even concern themselves with first-person aspects of the subjects’ states and processes. Instead, the states and processes of subjects are given a structural/functional interpretation. (A good example of a mixed-strategy is the experiments done on “mental rotation of objects” about 30 years ago.)

    The dual role of subject-observer poses special _epistemic_ problems for introspective psychology, but not obviously _metaphysical_ problems. There have been attempts by some methodological foes of introspection to demonstrate that introspectors don’t have the required sort of access to their own states and processes. Those studies, I think, have been partially successful, but don’t support an across the board denial of the validity of self-reports. Interestingly, it’s when subjects are instructed to report explicit reasoning processes that they seem best able to report accurately (as guaged by independent experimental analysis of inputs, processing times, patterns of error, etc).

    I hope that at least some of what I say here seems reasonable. And I hope you understand that I’m not trying to promote any particular metaphysical theses — instead, I’m trying to avoid having any of the options closed off prematurely.

    Posted February 6, 2007 at 3:01 pm | Permalink
  26. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    I’d suggest, instead, that 5 emerges as a formal property of a certain class of representational systems; and those systems need not even have the function/purpose of representing numeric data!

    Well, you’re in good company there, including Bertrand Russell. I’d still say that the representational systems require minds to define them.

    The dual role of subject-observer poses special epistemic problems for introspective psychology, but not obviously metaphysical problems. There have been attempts by some methodological foes of introspection to demonstrate that introspectors don’t have the required sort of access to their own states and processes.

    Dennett has done a good job of pointing out how unreliable these accounts can be. My own practical efforts with various introspective teachings has also given me a rather depressing first-person view of the variability of our inner awareness, and of how much of our lives we spend in a kind of sleep, though that is rather beside the point here.

    The line between objectivity and subjectivity does blur here, and I think that maybe some of the binary categories we tend to use are simply insufficient for clear thinking about these difficult questions.

    I’m glad we’ve been patiently working through these terminological issues, and I also want to say that my goal is not expressly to reject any metaphysical theses, but rather not to have anything ruled in prematurely.

    Posted February 6, 2007 at 3:32 pm | Permalink
  27. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – I, too, am glad that we’ve been patiently working through terminological issues. And I appreciate your willingness to seriously consider alternative points of view. That’s a pretty reliable indicator that you are motivated by a search for truth and understanding, and not just engaging in adolescent pissing contests. Thanks for your time and your efforts to make your perspective a bit clearer for me.

    Posted February 6, 2007 at 3:55 pm | Permalink
  28. Malcolm says

    Well, thank you too, Bob, and you are right about my motivation, which I’m sure is yours as well.

    I’m often not fighting, really, in these pages, for a particular metaphysical view, so much as thinking out loud and trying to tease out the implications of various models (though I obviously am intuitively drawn toward a rather stern physicalism). I have learned a great deal from the conversations I’ve had both here and over at Bill’s V.’s place, and I consider myself very fortunate to have such intelligent and thoughtful readers and commenters.

    Posted February 6, 2007 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

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