The Meaning Of Life

Dr. William Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher, is back in harness after a month-long layoff from blogging. I’m glad he’s back on the job: he is as interesting and provocative as always. I’d like to weigh in on this post in particular, in which he argues that meaning, in particular the meaning of life, must either have an objective basis, or founder in an infinite regress.

Bill examines the idea that the meaning of life is subjective — that life has whatever meaning you give it. He finds it wanting:

The subjectivist theory is identitarian as opposed to eliminativist. The claim is not that there is no meaning, which would amount to nihilism, but that there is meaning but it is subjective by its very nature: objective meaning is incoherent. Thus E. D. Klemke speaks of being “free to forge my own meaning.” (The Meaning of Life, 1st ed., p. 172) Klemke tells us that he finds his meaning in “knowledge, art, love, and work.” (173) These are the things he values, but on his theory it is only his subjective acts of valuation that posit these things as valuable. Someone who valued ignorance, hatred, and sloth would not be evaluating incorrectly on Klemke’s subjectivist theory but just differently. I would say that Klemke values the right things, but he couldn’t agree with me, at least not without qualification. For by my lights, knowledge, art, love, and work are objectively valuable, valuable in themselves; this Klemke would have to deny. He would have to say something like: they are valuable, but only for me or those like me.

The subjectivist view of existential meaning strikes me as deeply incoherent. If the activities of my life have only the meaning that I give them, then this would have to hold also for the acts of meaning-bestowal whereby certain goals and activities become meaningful for me. Suppose knowledge is the central value from which depends the meaning of my life. On the subjectivist theory, the value and meaning of knowledge-acquisition derives from a subjective process of meaning-bestowal. This process, which is integral to my life, must be meaningful if my life is to be meaningful. But the process of meaning-bestowal cannot be intrinsically meaningful on the subjectivist theory: nothing is intrinsically meaningful on the subjectivist theory. So I must be the source of the meaning of my acts of meaning-bestowal if these acts are to have meaning. And this seems to lead to an infinite vicious regress.

[If you would like a further elaboration of this regress, please visit Bill’s post, which is linked to above; there is also a good exchange in the comments thread between Bill and visiting philosopher Peter Lupu, who, as always, provides an effective counterbalance to Bill’s theistic objectivism.]

I think that there is a fundamental error here, and it is a common and easily made one, namely an insistence on the discreteness of the property or attribute under consideration. This is often lurking in the shadows when infinite-regress arguments are made, and we should always be wary of them, because, playing on our categorical intuitions as they do, they can blind us to the real world’s gradualism and continuity.

I think nobody has articulated the solution to this problem — which also has major significance for our ongoing discussion of free will — more clearly than Daniel Dennett, so I will summarize here the argument he presents in Chapter 2 of his book Elbow Room. (You can read the relevant passages here as well, thanks to Google Book Search.)

First of all, it is helpful to understand how a regress argument can lead us into trouble. Dennett gives us a good example of a sorites: if every mammal has a mammal for a mother, then there can’t be any mammals, because we know that if we go far enough back in the tree of life, there weren’t any mammals at all.

Given that we know there are mammals in the world (and ruling out, of course, special Creation of a first mammal by miraculous intervention, as I assume I am writing for an educated and adult audience), we must assume that the argument is flawed, as indeed it is. What existed instead was a continuum of organisms, along which lineage various mammalian traits gradually appeared. We can look at a bison, or Dolly Parton, and say with no fear of contradiction that we have before us a mammal; likewise we can examine a fossilized lungfish and say with equal confidence that we don’t. But there is no obvious place to draw the boundary — and it is this sort of gradualistic process that brought intentionality (“aboutness”), and therefore meaning, into the world.

Dennett asks us [p. 21]:

How could reason ever find a foothold in a material, mechanical universe? In the beginning, there were no reasons: there were only causes. Nothing had a purpose, nothing had so much as a function; there was no teleology in the world at all. The explanation for this is simple: there was nothing that had interests. But after millennia there happened to emerge simple replicators, and while they had no inkling of their interests, and perhaps properly speaking had no interests, we, peering back from our godlike vantage point at their early days, can nonarbitrarily assign them certain interests — generated by their defining “interest” in self-replication.

Hold on — is Dennett pulling a fast one here? Isn’t he retroactively bestowing the gift of his own intentionality on these primitive self-copying machines? No, he is just adopting an “intentional stance” toward them, and only provisionally so:

That is, maybe it really made no difference, was a matter of no concern, didn’t matter to anyone or anything whether or not they succeeded in replicating (though it does seem that we can be grateful that they did), but at least we can assign them interests conditionally. If these simple replicators are to survive and replicate, thus persisting in the face of increasing entropy, their environment must meet certain conditions: conditions conducive to replication must be present or at least frequent.

Put more anthropomorphically, if these simple replicators want to continue to replicate, they should hope and strive for certain things; They should avoid the “bad” things and seek the “good” things. Still more dramatically, were we to imagine ourselves guardians of their interests, we could see quite clearly that there would be steps to be taken, assistance to be rendered, warnings to be issued.

Dennett here is trying to be very clear that nobody, at this point, cares about anything. We are still a long way from living beings with any sort of “purpose”:

This is not saying very much yet, for it is also true that if we imagine ourselves to take a fancy to some particularly beautiful rock formation spewed up millions of years ago by some volcanic eruption, we can readily imagine the steps we would have to take to preserve it — to protect it from erosion, from being buried in sediment, from being broken by subsequent volcanic eruption, and so on.

But now we begin to see something more coming into being — and this is the key idea: the beginning of the slow, gradualist ramp that leads to emergent intentionality. This is how meaning begins to enter the world:

What is the difference? In what way did the interests of replicators begin to take on a life of their own? Just this: the replicators began to turn into crude guardians of their own interests. Indeed their power of self-replication depended on it. Unlike the volcanic scuplture, they were not utterly helpless and dependent on the solicitude of others; they could fend for themselves, a bit. The day that the universe contained entities that could take some rudimentary steps toward defending their own “interests” was the day that interests were born. The very tendencies of these organisms to preserve this and that (their varieties of homeostasis) helped sharpen the definition of their interests. Only certain sorts of homeostasis tended to be self-preserving in the long run; those kinds were replicated and hence persisted, and hence gave further definition to the crude, primordial “interest” in self-preservation and self-replication. Thus if body-temperature maintenance played an important role in the self-preservation of members of a species, body-temperature-maintaining control systems that evolved would persist. And that species’ catalog of interests would come to include the maintenance of a certain (range of) body temperature.

This is still early days: we are talking about mindless replicating machines. But the process is underway; the footings and abutments of the “gradualist bridge” that takes us from inanimate matter to a world of complex interests and meanings are built, and we now have billions of years in which to perform further construction.

Dennett again [p. 23]:

When an entity arrives on the scene capable of behavior that staves off, however primitively, its own dissolution and decomposition, it brings with it into the world its “good”. That is to say it creates a point of view from which the world’s events can be roughly partitioned into the favorable, the unfavorable, and the neutral. And its own innate proclivities to seek the first, shun the second, and and ignore the third contribute essentially to the definition of the three classes. As the creature thus comes to have interests, the world and its events begin creating reasons for it — whether or not the creature can fully recognize them.

And so organisms begin to act, and their design of their bodies begins to change, in a way consistent with reasons, that are in turn definable in terms of their interests. When we look at such organisms, however, it would be wrong to assume that, although the animal behaves in the way one would expect if one made a reasoned evaluation of its options, that it necessarily has any idea why it does what it does. The rationale is there, but it has never been explicitly considered by the animal itself. That would be unnecessarily expensive: rather it is what Dennett calls a “free-floating” rationale that is simply built in.

Lower animals … are constitutionally oblivious to many of the reasons that concern them. They are like the stock character in spy fiction who plays out his role in a complex project without an inkling of the the real import of the events he is involved with…

Mother Nature abides by the “need to know” principle, but we appreciate a contrary principle: our ideal is to be completely savvy, to be able to notice all the reasons that concern us, to be in the dark about nothing of relevance to us, to be the completely and perfectly informed guardians of our own interests. That is what it would be to be able to choose one’s actions always as reason dictated.

We often say that “reason dictates” a certain course of action to an actor in a certain circumstance. We do not mean by this that there is some strange personified force, a Dictator called Reason who has issued an edict. Obviously we mean something abstract: we mean that a certain problem (abstractly considered — that is, whether or not any creature has explicitly expressed and addressed it) has a certain (optimal) solution. The problem is defined by the interests and circumstances of the actor in question. But the subliminal image of wise old Reason, telling us what to do, has had quite a strong effect on the way the issue has been conceived by philosophers.

We are obviously far more complex creatures than the simple replicators we have considered here. In particular we have acquired enormously complex brains that have evolved to the point that we can take advantage of a splendid new trick: we are able not only to act on our interests, but also to represent them, and to represent our representations of them. Our brains are able to form complex and manipulable models of the reasons and rationales that motivate our behavior, an ability that vastly increases our behavioral repertoire, and gives us enormous flexibility, adaptability, and yes, freedom.

It appears that, like the lower animals, whose “good” — representing Nature’s free-floating rationales — is simply wired in, we also come with some universal moral intuitions. But what is unique to us is our ability to bring our new and special talent — for imagining and evaluating our prospective behavior in light of our reasons and interests — to bear on those reasons and interests themselves. What is “good” is subject, in the human mind, to re-evaluation at any depth, it seems.

So are “meaning”, “purpose”, and “good”, ultimately subjective? I think that we are limited in this by our built-in emotional affinities and aversions; a truly radical re-evaluation may not be possible for us, as we must always have some bedrock valuation against which to measure any proposed revision. Perhaps not, though; maybe it is indeed possible to drill all the way down to nihilism, to conclude that ultimately nothing matters. But, as Dennett also reminds us [p. 156]:

Some suspect that if determinism is true, so is nihilism… I cannot say that it would be a great pity, a crying shame, an instance of “cosmic unfairness” if nihilism turned out to be true. For if nihilism were true, all value judgments would be illusory; the brute fact of anyone’s sorrow or pain wouldn’t mean a thing, and bemoaning our predicament would be as misguided as regretting that the square root of two isn’t one and a half. Nihilism might, I suppose, be true; it might even follow from determinism, as some suspect (though I have no reason to believe this). Nevertheless, we may assume that nihilism is false. How can I make that complacent (or cavalier) claim? Shouldn’t we even stop to consider carefully the prospect that it might be true? Well, if it were true that we ought to take the possibility of nihilism that seriously, then nihilism would be false, for if we ought to do anything then nihilism is false. But then we may as well assume it is false, because either it is false, or, if it isn’t, then nothing matters and we may do whatever we want. Nihilism is, quite literally, a negligible position.

But regardless of the possibility of a total re-evaluation of life’s subjective meaning, we have seen how the infinite-regress objection raised by Dr. Vallicella can be avoided without recourse to any sort of theistic or other supernaturalist foundation.

The choice is ours, then: if we wish to imagine that our intuitions about “good” and “meaning” are objective, we may simply assert that they are, and indeed they will continue to represent the “free-floating” rationales that installed them. But those rationales are themselves amenable to human understanding, and I think that if the human race is ever to rise above its brute and unasked-for nature it is up to us to examine ourselves, to understand our own origins and the source of our moral and ethical intuitions, and to consider them in the light of day. Socrates would approve.

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Related Posts:
  1. The Meaning Of Life
  2. The Meaning of Life, Continued


  1. bob koepp says

    The move from causes to interests till seems like sleight of hand to me. Note that I’m not proposing any alternative to Dennett’s “explanation,” just saying that the scare quotes are appropriately placed.

    Posted July 8, 2008 at 11:04 am | Permalink
  2. Addofio says

    A scattering of thoughts that I haven’t taken time to weave into organized prose, or to fully develop/explicate, for which I apologize–gotta go feed the dogs.

    Meaning is relative in the sense that if X is meaningful, it is meaningful to some (conscious? living?) entity. Is that necesarily identical with “meaning is subjective”? I don’t think so, but it would take time to develop this proposition.

    There are multiple kinds of meaning–within knowledge systems, meaning comes from relating “nodes” within the system to other nodes within the system–another form of relativeness. At least two kinds of meaning are implied in the above discussion–meaning relative to values or purposes of living entities, and meaning within conceptual/cognitive systems, which may imply the existence of living systems but (at least some of) which may be “objective” in the sense that a lot of mathematics appears to be objective.

    Our sense of “meaning” isn’t just about knowledge and rationality–it has as much to do with feeling as anything else. Just ask a severly depressed person, to whom nothing seems meaningful. Or consult your own flash of pleasure or satisfaction when you figure something out, or see the meaning of something in a new way.

    It’s possible that meaning may be not purely subjective (“subjective” is often taken to imply “purely arbitrary”, which is probably a mistake, but it’s in that sense that I think “subjective” is being used in the discussion) in the sense that “if life, then meaning will emerge”–it may be inevitable for living entities to evolve “meaning” in some fashion, starting from the point laid out by Dennett. It may even be that, broadly speaking, certain kinds of meaning may inevitably emerge with the emergence of complex living systems (though of course we don’t have enough test cases, as yet, to do much more than speculate about this.)

    Regardless of all this–I still want love and beauty to have meaning, whether I’m here (or you or anyone else) or not. Which, given the above propositions, would lead one to posit God in some fashion, if only to provide the entity to whome love and beauty would be meaningful. This of course wouldn’t prove the existence of God–as a confirmed agnostic, I beleive there are and can be no proofs of either the existence or non-existence of God that are intellectually and generally satisfying–but it does imply to me that positing God might be a perfectly reasonably and respectable thing for a person to do. To do any thinking at all, we gotta start somewhere, with unproved propositions, after all.

    It occurred to me at some point in reading your post to wonder if there is any distinction between “objective” meaning and “inherent” meaning, and to wonder of chewing on the idea of “inherent meaning” would take us into any new territory. Haven’t chewed on it enough myself to have a clear opinion yet.

    Posted July 8, 2008 at 11:09 am | Permalink
  3. Addofio says

    One more random thought occurred after feeding the dogs while having my own breakfast: The existence of meaning in general as evolving from selection for purposive behavior may mean (heh) that there’s something inevitable and in that sense objective about the existence of meaning–but it says nothing about the objectivitiy or otherwise about the content of any given bit of meaning. In fact, for Vallicella’s argument to work, wouldn’t he have to be saying not only that meaning in general is “objective”, but that the content of any given specific meaning is objective? Which is patently false? And if not–if meaning could arguably be objective in some general sense without implying the objectivity of the content of any specific bit of meaning–how?

    Posted July 8, 2008 at 11:42 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Hi Addofio, and thanks for your comments.

    I quite agree that emotion is basic to meaning, though I see no difficulties in that for the view described here – emotion is what provides the affective foundation for all valuation, and our emotional affinities and aversions can be understood as evolutionary adaptations whose “free-floating” rationale is to push our behavior in directions that advance our interests.

    I also agree that given life, certain sorts of meaning and purpose will always emerge; which is about as objective a footing as we can hope for, I think, though such meanings and puurposes are still available, to creatures like us, for subjective review. For example, celibacy in the service of inner growth hardly seems like the sort of thing that would be adaptive, as it makes the practitioner an evolutionary dead end (though I suppose a proclivity for such behavior, with a fairly low chance of being expressed, might be a useful adaptation if we are willing to consider group-level selection, which I am.)

    I still want love and beauty to have meaning too, and indeed they do! We differ, though, in that I think they only have meaning in the context of minds to instantiate them. I am no Platonist, and I don’t demand that beauty must exist in the absence of a beholding eye; in fact I strongly disagree with that view. I see no need to create a god who will take care of the beauty-appreciating even if nobody’s around; I think that is a way of letting a desire for objectivism creep in the back door.

    A place to think about inherent meaning might be the food-dance of a bee, my favorite example of mindless intentionality.

    Posted July 8, 2008 at 12:11 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    “Sleight of hand”? Really? Why? It makes such clear and simple sense.

    We know that once there was no meaning in our barren and lifeless world, and now there is; this model is a straightforward, naturalistic account of how this can have happened, without supernatural intervention, and in a way that avoids the infinite-regress difficulties raised by the theists.

    Posted July 8, 2008 at 12:14 pm | Permalink
  6. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – The sleight of hand occurs just where you manage to overcome your own incredulity. Our adopting an intentional stance toward replicators doesn’t change what properties they have in their own right — and it’s them, the replicators, to which interests (or, more properly, “interests”) are being assigned.

    Posted July 8, 2008 at 1:28 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Right, Bob – but the key point is that the successful replicators are the ones that embody the means to protect themselves, find food, seek out mates, etc. Forming models and representations of interests is some thing that only more advanced creatures like us can do, and it is only we who can write blog posts about meaning — but it was the process of embodying ever-more-sophisticated rationales, and eventually building brains that can modify them on the fly, that got us where we are. And from that vantage there is no sleight-of-hand in looking back at the earliest stages of the process to explain how it began.

    Posted July 8, 2008 at 1:43 pm | Permalink
  8. bob koepp says

    I know that some non-replicating systems internally represent certain states and behave in ways that actualize those states. Still, I’m not even mildly tempted to attribute interests to smart bombs. Perhaps it is only replicators that can have interests — I don’t know.

    Posted July 8, 2008 at 2:03 pm | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says


    Perhaps it is only replicators that can have interests…

    I don’t think we have to go that far; what we’re looking at here is simply the natural origin of interests, a way that intentionality could have entered the world without depending upon a supernatural agency, and without being dragged down by Bill’s infinite regress.

    Posted July 8, 2008 at 2:18 pm | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    Also, Bob, another point: we do indeed ascribe interests to all sorts of devices; we can predict the behaviour of a chess computer, for example, based on its interest in winning the game.

    The usual philosophical move is to grant that, but to say that as a human artifact the chess machine has “derived” intentionality that depends on our “original” intentionality. But the point here is to show how our own intentionality (and of course that of lower animals as well, as in the bee’s dance) could have arisen without requiring a buck-stopping God, and without simply throwing up our hands and declaring a “mystery”.

    And you are right: it is only living things (replicators) that could have got this process going, because you need replicators to get the design engine of natural selection working. It’s the only way to have bootstrapped this sequence from an inanimate world.

    Posted July 8, 2008 at 3:41 pm | Permalink
  11. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – Perhaps you ascribe interests to computers, but I don’t. At most, I ascribe “interests”.

    Posted July 8, 2008 at 3:57 pm | Permalink
  12. Malcolm says


    Would you ascribe interests to a bee, or a worm?

    Posted July 8, 2008 at 4:03 pm | Permalink
  13. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – I don’t ascribe interests to bees or worms, but nor do I deny they have interests. I just don’t know enough about the psychology of such creatures to form an opinion about whether interests play any role in generating their apparent goal-directed behaviors. Of course, I don’t know much about the psychology of lots of creatures where I do assume interests play an important role (on reflection, these tend to be vertebrates…).

    Posted July 8, 2008 at 4:32 pm | Permalink
  14. Malcolm says


    I think we are getting to the nub of the matter now. You seem to be defining interests as being internally, perhaps even consciously, represented. But that is only a late arrival — a useful add-on — in evolutionary terms, and here we are talking about how interests, purposes, functions, etc. arrived on the scene in the first place.

    Living things do indeed, as you don’t deny, have interests, which is really the point. A bee’s dance has intentionality and meaning because the bees themselves have interests that the dance has evolved to promote.

    And we needn’t draw the line at vertebrates; all living things have interests. (Psychology is another subject altogether.) A rose grows thorns because it has an interest in discouraging herbivores. In other words, the thorns are for the purpose of making the rose an unappealing meal to an animal that wants to feed itself.

    As far as we know, only living things (and their artifacts) have this sort of intentionality, and it is due to the evolutionary process that they are the product of.

    Posted July 8, 2008 at 4:53 pm | Permalink
  15. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – While I believe there are deep connections between them, I think concepts like ‘function’, ‘intentionality’ and ‘interest’ need to be carefully distinguished. This is probably not the time or place to try to sort them out, but I do think that interests, in the sense relevant to any discussion about “the meaning of life” are psychological phenomena which probably involve consciousness of some sort.

    Posted July 8, 2008 at 5:32 pm | Permalink
  16. Malcolm says


    Whatever words you would like to use to refer to the intentionality or meaning of a bee’s dance or a rose’s thorns, it is clear that this sort of thing is very ancient (far more ancient than human-style consciousness), and found only in living things. Would you disagree that the human version is layered upon this pre-existing foundation?

    It seems to me that what we humans add is the ability not only to act in accordance with our interests, but to represent them consciously and even modify them. But I don’t see why adding this recent feature, however new and powerful, should in any way mitigate against this account of how the ball got rolling in the first place.

    Posted July 8, 2008 at 5:54 pm | Permalink
  17. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – I don’t disagree with the strategy of gradually building up to conscious interests/concerns of the sort relevant to questions about “the meaning of life.” That part of Dennett’s program I find quite congenial. Where I have problems is with the slide between objective interests (i.e., necessities of life, or what is “in the interest” of an organism”) and the sorts of interests where an organism “takes an interest”. These are not at all the same, since the things in which one takes an interest can diverge in pretty obvious ways from what is in one’s interest. Dennett is uncareful about such things in too much of his work — though I know well enough that he can, when pressed, be much more precise. He’s a very smart guy, but sometimes he gets sloppy about details — and that’s not how gradualists should proceed.

    Posted July 8, 2008 at 6:38 pm | Permalink
  18. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    Well, this is progress, I think; we agree that there is a coherent gradualist, evolutionary account of how interests, purposes, intentionality, and meanings can have entered the world. (This is far more than I have ever been able to press Bill V. to acknowledge; he has always gone “radio silent” whenever we’ve got to this point, to my chagrin.) I think, importantly, that we have made it clear that the “aboutness” that is the hallmark of intentionality is distinct from mentality, and distinct in particular from consciousness; certainly, for example, a pit viper’s heat-sensing organs are “about” the warm-blooded prey it feeds on. From here I think it is not hard to finish the bridge; it is almost complete already.

    When we begin to move beyond plants and snakes and bees to mammals, primates, and humans, we are dealing with brains of ever-increasing complexity, and social arrangements of increasing flexibility and sophistication. Likewise, as creatures become more supple and complex, they evolve through succeeding levels of interaction with the environment.

    In the simplest form of interaction, where behavior is simply “wired in”, variation presents an assortment of hard-wired behaviors to the environment. Those variants that best serve the interests of the creature that embodies them will propagate, while the less fortunate experiments die off.

    A more flexible sort of creature — what Dennett calls “Skinnerian” — might be able to try various responses in its own lifetime, and by reinforcement settle on one that it sticks with.

    Far more powerful still is the ability to “try” such responses in preview against an inner model of the environment, and to make a good guess about which behavior will be the right choice. This sort of interior modeling requires a lot of heavy machinery, and is far beyond what a bee might do.

    In complex primate societies, one’s interests begin to go far beyond merely detecting food or avoiding predators; it becomes useful — and therefore adaptive — for our interior models of the environment to include modeling the minds and behaviors of others in the group, to have thoughts about what they might be thinking.

    But it is, apparently, only humans who have become capable of an even higher level of inner sophistication; we are able to turn all that modeling and reflection upon itself in a way that is practically without limit. We are able to make models like “If I say to Jane that I like her dress, then she is going to know that I know that she thought I wouldn’t like it.” And we can also have thoughts about our own thoughts, have thoughts about our thoughts about our own thoughts, and so on, in uncountably many ways. When all this recursive flexibility is coupled with the enormous combinatorial power of language, which gives us the tools not only to formulate and express, but also to share, and store these elaborate models, we get to the point where we can begin to analyze, evaluate, and modify our interests in ways that no other animal mind can — and we can also invent brand-new ones.

    But the key point here, I must emphasize again — and the sticking point as far as Bill Vallicella’s view is concerned — is the other end of the ramp, the place where theists must place God, or become stuck in an infinite regress. I think it is clear that there is another answer — and a far more elegant one besides.

    Posted July 8, 2008 at 10:54 pm | Permalink
  19. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – I’m probably less sure than you that there is, indeed, a “coherent gradualist, evolutionary account of how interests, purposes, intentionality, and meanings can have entered the world.” I can see how some important steps in that direction might be acheived, if some tendentious assumptions are allowed — and that inclines me to think the project as a whole is at least plausible. I think, though, that we are still quite far from a coherent account of how the pieces can be fitted together to explain what needs explaining, especially if questions are raised about “the meaning of life.”

    Bill, of course, thinks the naturalist project not only implausible, but actually incoherent. I think the arguments he presents to that end are inconclusive, and make their own tendentious assumptions. But I take his criticisms of naturalism quite seriously, and largely agree with him about what is tendentious in the assumptions underlying that project.

    I hope that clarifies where I’m coming from, and what more I’m looking for from naturalism, which is, after all, where my own sympathies lie.

    Posted July 8, 2008 at 11:38 pm | Permalink
  20. Malcolm says


    Forgive me for not letting go, but what do you see as overreaching assumptions here?

    Posted July 8, 2008 at 11:57 pm | Permalink
  21. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – My first reference to tendentious assumptions was in the context of saying that I can see how some steps in the naturalist program might be achieved. The main one for me is the assumption that information is an objective feature of the world, independent of any consumers of that information. This is pretty tendentious, but I make that move because it’s the only way I can see (and dimly, at that…) how to get a very “basic” sort of intentionality into the picture. Whether that “basic” sort of intentionality can bear the weight of a reasonable theory of semantics is very much in question. I’m deeply unsatisfied with Dennett’s gambit of “the intentional stance,” since that smacks of projectivism — totally at odds with the sort of objectivism that I think is necessary for a naturalistic project.

    But let me take a step back. I think we have a pretty good naturalistic account of functions as adaptations (products of selection “for”). But the move from functions to intentional “aboutness” is not straightforward. For example, I don’t think it’s quite accurate to say a pit viper’s heat sensing organs are “about” its prey; rather, those organs have the function of picking up information about the prey from the ambient atmosphere and encoding it in a way that allows it to regulate the viper’s behavior. That encoding is probably what we would call a representation. I hope these snippets give at least a flavor of the complexities that need more than a gloss to constitute a real explanatory account — I must apologize for not having the time right now to delve deeper, but I’m off to work.

    Posted July 9, 2008 at 8:08 am | Permalink
  22. peter says


    In this post I shall exclusively focus on the solution you propose for the kind of regress arguments Bill gave against a subjectivist account of meaning.

    You argue as follows:
    “I think that there is a fundamental error here [i.e., in Bill’s regress argument], and it is a common and easily made one, namely an insistence on the discreteness of the property or attribute under consideration. This is often lurking in the shadows when infinite-regress arguments are made, and we should always be wary of them, because, playing on our categorical intuitions as they do, they can blind us to the real world’s gradulism and continuity.”

    The counterexample you cite is Dennett’s mammal example. This example and the ensuing argument begs the question against Bill’s argument and any regress argument of the same kind. Why?

    The principal dispute between people such as Dennett vs. people such as Bill, myself, and other non-naturalists is that there are certain concepts; e.g., truth, rationality, intentionality, value-moral and epistemic, consciousness, semantic concepts such as meaning, reference, etc., that simply cannot be cast in naturalistic terms. They bring into the picture something that resists reduction as well as elimination. Call them non-naturalistic concepts.

    Now, Dennet’s argument is that regress arguments, such as Bill’s for instance, can lead us into trouble because of the mammal example. The reasoning appears to be as follows:

    (i) If regress arguments about non-naturalistic concepts were cogent, then the mammal-regress argument would also be cogent. (premise
    (ii) But we know that the mammal-regress argument is not cogent. (empirical premise)
    (iii) Regress arguments about non-naturalistic concepts are not cogent.

    Bill, myself and other non-naturalists will jump all over premise (i), for it assumes that non-naturalistic properties such as meaning etc., are on a par with an empirical property such as ‘being a mammal’. But, of course, the whole point of the non-naturalist stand regarding these kind of properties is that they are not on a par with naturalist properties. Therefore, while (i)-(iii) is a logically valid argument, a non-naturalist will promptly reject it on the grounds that premise (i) begs the question against them. From a non-naturalist point of view, premise (i) is false. Therefore, the argument is not sound.


    Posted July 9, 2008 at 10:48 am | Permalink
  23. Malcolm says

    Hi Peter, and thanks for joining us.

    It seems to me that this is the same insistence on absolutism that I consider to be the problem with the regress argument in the first place. On the view you defend, it is not sufficient that we humans have practical mechanisms for thinking about things — it must be irreducible, non-naturalistic intentionality. It is not sufficient that we humans have valuations — they must be based on irreducible, non-naturalistic, intrinsic value, etc. Rather than our reason being a “good enough” model of the world and a program for finding “best effort” solutions to real-world problems, it must be perfect abstract Reason, or it just won’t do. Human meaning cannot be based on a highly designed set of syntactic processes that form a system for modeling and prioritizing the demands that the environment places upon us, but instead must be placed on a non-natural, purely objective bedrock, or it fails to satisfy. And so forth.

    It puzzles me why this should be so, when the naturalistic account of all these phenomena covers all these bases more than adequately well. Moreover — and this is telling — the naturalistic view accounts not only for our abilities, but our weaknesses as well. It is plain enough that despite our impressive talents, we humans are not perfect reasoners, perfect meaning-extractors, and so on; it takes only modest experimental ingenuity to reveal the limitations of our intellectual apparatus, and its susceptibility to all manner of perceptual and cognitive illusions, of exactly the sort that give away our evolutionary background. Without any effort of attention we unconsciously perform the complex calculations required to throw a ball, recognize a friend, or read the play of emotion on another person’s face — all tasks that were as useful on the savannas as they are today — but we require years of training to grasp physics, law, calculus and other recent additions to our cognitive repertoire.

    From my perspective, given that what we have before us are the plain facts of our natural history and our cognitive finiteness, it appears to me that it is the non-naturalists who beg the question against the naturalists, not the other way round.

    Posted July 9, 2008 at 12:06 pm | Permalink
  24. peter says


    Your last post highlights some of the arguments naturalist make on behalf of their position. And they may or may not be cogent. We can debate them on their own merit. However, my point was that unless these issues are settled one way or another Dennet’s mammal-example cannot be a sound argument against regress arguments of the type Bill gave. The reason is that premise (i) is just as much part of the dispute between naturalists and non-naturalists as is the question of whether consciousness is a natural phenomenon, for instance. It is part of the divide between the two camps. Therefore it cannot be the basis of a neutral argument against the soundness of regress type argument such as Bill’s.
    That was my point and it is something of a formal point. Non-naturalists such as Bill (and ultimately myself, although, in my case I “feel the pain” of naturalists) simply reject premise (i) as false, deem Dennet’s argument as unsound, and add his argument as just one more disputed point between the two camps.
    So you have two options. Your first option is to accept that Dennet’s argument is just another naturalist move that at this stage of the game begs the question against the non-naturalist. Hence, you will have to muster different arguments against Bill’s regress argument about the meaning of life. Or, second, you can insist that Bill’s regress argument itself begs the question against a naturalist conception of the meaning of life and, thus, accept that the two camps do not as yet enjoy a neutral ground to debate this issue.
    I myself opted to pursue the first strategy in my debates with Bill on this matter. And incidentally my strategy does not presuppose a naturalist stand at all, at least not right upfront. Hence, such a strategy forces Bill to address these arguments directly without opting out on the ground that they presuppose a naturalist stand from the beginning.


    Posted July 9, 2008 at 12:34 pm | Permalink
  25. Malcolm says

    Hi Peter,

    Your point is well taken that there may indeed be insufficient common ground for debating this issue. Indeed the purpose of my original post was to call into question the non-naturalist’s axiomatic assumption that meaning is intrinsically the sort of thing that is not susceptible to the Prime-Mammal sort of fallacy.

    Because I believe that we have ample empirical evidence that a naturalistic account of intentionality is not only possible, but the best option available, I have attempted to debate Bill directly on this issue, using examples that he himself has given. In particular I focused on this post, in which Bill argued that carefully piled stones on a trail, with a meaning that is clear to hikers, are evidence of intrinsic intentionality — just the sort of thing, I believe, that you have in mind above as being a “non-naturalistic concept”. I asked him whether he would agree that a pheromone trail laid by an ant, and later followed to a food source by another ant, was an example of intrinsic intentionality also — to which he agreed. At that point, seeking to pry apart intentionality and the more problematic issue of consciousness, I asked him the following:

    Would you say the ants do any of this consciously? Is there any reason that we should suppose that ants have minds? Would you agree that it is at least plausible to suggest that they don’t, and that they are, rather, nothing more than little machines that are genetically wired up to behave this way? Certainly it isn’t something they have to learn to do, they just do it.

    I was very interested to read Bill’s response, but it never came. I believe examples like this — and we don’t have to stop with ants; even plants and bacteria signal one another in various ways — constitute evidence that supposedly “non-naturalistic” properties as intentionality can be instantiated in simple biological machines, and that, I think, argues strongly, perhaps even fatally, against the absolute irreducibility that non-naturalists take as axiomatic.

    Posted July 9, 2008 at 1:50 pm | Permalink
  26. Addofio says

    As a non-philosopher attempting to follow the threads of this discussion–what, exactly, is “naturalistic” vs. “non-naturalistic”? Is it more than the distinction between reductionist and non-reductionist philosophies/epistemologies? I keep thinking I’ve grasped the thread–only to have it slip away as I read the next paragraph or two. I’m trying to put my mental finger on the nub of the disputed territory, and can’t quite figure it out.

    To help me understand–is the number two–you know, that abstraction designated by the symbol “2”–a naturalistic phenomenon, or a non-naturalistic one?

    Posted July 9, 2008 at 2:37 pm | Permalink
  27. Malcolm says

    Hi Addofio,

    This Wikipedia article is probably as good a place as any to get the idea.

    As for your question about the number 2, that is very much an open metaphysical question itself!

    Posted July 9, 2008 at 5:43 pm | Permalink
  28. peter says


    So let me now focus on the naturalist vs. non-naturalist issue and the arguments you have made on behalf of the naturalists in recent posts. It is important to see how difficult it is to establish the naturalist’s position. The claim is that the class of concepts/properties I have called non-naturalist; eg., consciousness, intentionality (beliefs, desires, hopes etc.,), meaning, truth, reference, rationality, reason, values: moral, aesthetic, epistemic, etc., are all reducible in some way to some natural concepts/properties. The trouble is that they all have to be reduced simultaneously and in a way that the reducing theory does not presuppose anywhere any of these concepts or their kin.

    For instance, you have given in several posts an account of intentionality in terms of a version of evolutionary theory. The details of this theory are not so important. What is important, however, is that you have given this evolutionary account of intentionality because you believe that something like the evolutionary story is true. The trouble is that the concept of truth itself is on the list of those nasty non-naturalist concepts I have enumerated above. So your naturalistic account of intentionality presupposes another non-naturalist concept, namely, truth.

    This problem arises no matter which non-naturalist concept you decide to reduce first. One or more other concepts from the list will always be lurking in the background. It will not do to say that the naturalist story you narrated in the reduction of intentionality is a fact and that is why you appeal to it in your account. For one thinks that the theory of evolution is a fact because one thinks that the theory is true and that we have ample evidence to accept it as true. But both truth and evidence are among the non-naturalist concepts on the list.

    I will now answer a few potential objections:

    (i) Your argument challenges the truth of the theory of evolution. But what alternative theory do we have that is better? Creationism?

    Answer(i): My argument has nothing to do with the evolution vs. creationism debate. The point of my argument is that the reason one thinks that consciousness, intentionality, etc., are explainable in terms of evolutionary theory is because one thinks that a version of the evolutionary story is true. But thinking that evolutionary theory, or any theory for that matter, is true involves the concept of truth, which is one of the non-naturalist concepts on the list. So what we have here is an attempt to reduce some non-naturalist properties while presupposing others.

    (ii) The reason we appeal to the theory of evolution in this reduction is because we have considerable evidence in its favor.

    Answer(ii): By ‘considerable evidence’ one must mean here evidence that rationally justifies accepting the theory. But now we have introduced into the picture another non-naturalist property, namely, rational justification.

    (iii) We do not need the concept of truth or even that of rationality. We can simply say that our brain works in such a way that it tends to accept veridical evidence that supports theories that are factual.

    Answer(iii): How do you know how your brain works? And how do you know that it tends to accept veridical evidence? How do you know that your brain does not occasionally accept evidence for non-factual theories in order to fool you? And if so, then how do you know that this is not happening with regard to evolutionary theory?

    Rejoiner: Well, the brain is not the sort of thing that could intentionally pretend…

    ooops…you mean intentionally try to fool you to accept non-veridical evidence?

    And so comes in the back door the very concept you have tried to reduce, namely, intentionality.


    Posted July 10, 2008 at 7:18 pm | Permalink
  29. peter says


    There are three different categories: physical, mental, and abstract. Whether there are actually in the world things that belong to each of these categories is a disputed matter in philosophy and it is in part the very issue we are discussing here.

    Take for instance things such as consciousness, or the concept of belief. Certain people (Dualists) think that these and other concepts are fundamentally distinct from physical properties and processes such as mass and velocity. So then we have in the world physical properties and things as well as mental ones.

    Naturalists such as Malcolm, for instance, think that there are no items that belong to the mental category and that concepts that appear to belong to this category; concepts such as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, etc., are in fact reducible to physical concepts and theories.

    Mathematical entities such as numbers are examples of entities that belong to the third category of things, namely, the category of abstract entities. Again, some people think that there are no abstract entities at all and, therefore, mathematical entities have to be either mental (intuitionism in mathematics)or physical (empiricism).

    These are roughly the fault lines on these matters.
    I hope this is helpful.


    Posted July 10, 2008 at 7:34 pm | Permalink
  30. Malcolm says

    Peter, thank you for that response. The mark of the astute philosopher is to sharpen and focus the questions, and you have done so most provocatively here. And thank you in particular for making the effort to rewrite it after the comment-form mercilessly obliterated your first draft.

    Your comments deserve a careful response, and I will mull them over. I fear that it is indeed very difficult to find enough common ground to have any hope of making progress toward resolving these fundamentally different worldviews. I do have a few preliminary thoughts about what form such a response would have to take.

    Foremost of all, I think, it must be pointed out that we have here, once again, a philosophical insistence on absolutes: it should apparently not be considered sufficient simply to conditionally and pragmatically use the evolutionary account as a provisional model, one that provides empirically useful guidelines for organizing research, accounting for observed regularities, etc.; what is being demanded, it seems, is that the evolutionary account must lay claim to capital-T Truth in a way that that no scientific theory ever has ever offered, nor has ever claimed to offer.

    Your proposed objection (i) is, of course negligible, as I am sure you intended. That we might not have a better theory in no way buttresses the naturalistic one; we might, after all, simply be incompetent.

    (ii) and (iii) are closer, I think, to the sort of response I would make. Indeed, as noted in (ii), there is indeed a great deal of persuasive, interlocking evidence to support the evolutionary story. This is to say that the evolutionary theory asserts that an observer who had been able to watch in detail the unfolding history of life would have seen variations arising and conferring differential rates of reproductive success, and that subsequent variations would use the previously successful ones as a starting point for further design changes, etc. It also predicts that an observer who found a world in which life was just beginning would see the same process at work.

    Rational justification of the scientific sort can be interpreted in a wholly naturalistic way, if we like; we can say that it means nothing more than that the theory influences us toward certain set of behavioral dispositions. Our theory of electromagnetism, for example, regardless of any claims it may make on Truth, has had empirically satisfactory results in that we have found that making televisions out of transistors, rather than sticks, actually results in a picture being displayed. This therefore disposes us to seek better transistors, rather than better sticks, for better TVs. The theory itself may be hogwash; it may be nothing more than a rain dance that happened to produce rain the first ten times we tried it. But if it stopped producing empirical results, it would no longer tend to guide our behavior. So any scientific theory is merely provisional in a way that is quite different from abstract Truth. Perhaps we need a new word for the correspondence between theory and empirical results; “truth” perhaps has too much baggage, and is muddying the waters.

    So “rational justification” has, perhaps, a lower bar for the naturalist than it does for the dualist. C.S. Lewis, as I noted in this post, saw this as “the cardinal difficulty” of naturalism – but to the naturalist, it isn’t a problem at all: our brains simply aren’t perfect reasoning engines; it is naive, and a delusion, to expect them to be. They simply enable us to make “good enough” models of certain regularities in the world in order to make our way. But they do this very well. How well? It’s hard to say.

    In your response to (iii) you ask:

    How do you know that your brain does not occasionally accept evidence for non-factual theories in order to fool you? And if so, then how do you know that this is not happening with regard to evolutionary theory?

    The naturalistic answer to that, of course, is that our brains do indeed occasionally do just what you are suggesting (indeed, we are beginning to understand why, with the help of evolutionary theory). This is why any scientific theory runs the risk, with each new observation, of having to be discarded. The objective Truth that you are demanding is nowhere to be seen, but so long as we continue to have empirical success, we continue to use the theory as our most helpful model.

    Indeed, it is Bill’s very demand for objective bedrock that was what sparked this discussion in the first place; the naturalist argues that such yearnings are futile.

    Of course, all of this means that a naturalist can never provide the sort of ironclad proof that the dualist would like. To the dualist, this is a fatal objection, but not to the naturalist, who just carries on using his evolved and imperfect biological meat-brain to make theories, televisions, etc., with gratifying results. And the dualist begs the question against the naturalist by insisting that he satisfy requirements that are intrinsically inconsistent with naturalism.

    Posted July 11, 2008 at 12:07 am | Permalink
  31. bob koepp says

    Whether or not Bill V is an absolutist with respect to standards of argumentation, demanding ironclad proofs (I don’t think he is, but…), naturalism, by its very nature as an exclusionary metaphysical position, involves a sort of absolutism. Naturalists can’t very well take the position that “all but an insignificant few” features of this world are amenable to naturalistic explanation — naturalism is an all or nothing proposition.

    I’m willing to give defenders of any metaphysical view a fair bit of latitude, letting them mount piecemeal defenses of one or a few claims while relying on other claims that will, in their turn require justification. So I say, let naturalists assume the truth of a broadly evolutionary account of origins. My question in the present case is whether, given the constraints on which naturalists themselves insist, they can actually give a plalusible explanation of how to close the gap between causes and interests. Saying that the gap is small, or that it must be traversed gradually, one small step at a time, doesn’t constitute an explanation untill each small step is articulated. Anything less is just a promissory note.

    Posted July 11, 2008 at 9:37 am | Permalink
  32. Malcolm says


    Rereading my last comment in the light of day, I see I misspoke, ceding too much territory; what I should have said there was And the dualist begs the question against the naturalist by insisting that the concepts you describe are non-naturalistic. Too much haste; too little mulling.

    Perhaps the best way I might press that point is to focus on the intentionality of the ant’s pheromone trail: intentionality that seems to be the product of a simple biological machine.

    That we do not yet have a complete naturalistic account of subjective mental phenomena is not evidence that no such account can be made; such a claim falls to the same objection as (i) above.

    Posted July 11, 2008 at 10:16 am | Permalink
  33. Malcolm says


    What parts do you see as most glaringly absent?

    It is in the “nature” of naturalism that it will always be called upon to offer some promissory notes, as it makes claims that bring the phenomena in question into the realm of empirical testing. Dualism, however, gets a free pass. The dualist says that intentionality, etc., “just are” irreducible, and that’s the end of it. The naturalist demurs, and is then taxed with issuing promissory notes, whereas the dualist need produce nothing at all. It’s hardly a level playing field.

    Posted July 11, 2008 at 10:27 am | Permalink
  34. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – Well, the most obvious difficulty is precisely to move from descriptive causes to normative interests. It isn’t enough to say that we’ve evolved to pursue things that are, as a matter of fact, “in our interest” as reproducing systems. That doesn’t even begin to capture the normative dimensions of the problem. Now, if you want to bite the bullet and say normativity is either descriptive or illusory, well then the sorts of objections that Peter has been raising hit with full force.

    As for level playing fields, I strive to be an equal opportunity critic, and don’t recall issuing any free passes to dualists. I think I’ve been pretty consistent is saying that all the competing metaphysical views have strengths and weaknesses.

    Posted July 11, 2008 at 11:00 am | Permalink
  35. Malcolm says


    I’m afraid I don’t see where the difficulty is. Just as the pursuit of our interest in feeding ourselves expresses itself as a feeling of hunger, or the interest to reproduce expresses itself in a feeling of amorous attraction, so, for example, do the adaptive social interests that benefit us as gregarious mammals express themselves as normative moral instincts.

    Posted July 11, 2008 at 11:13 am | Permalink
  36. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – The problem is simply to move from descriptions of how we in fact behave to statments about how we should behave. Nobody (including Dennett) has explained how this can be done, whether incrementally or not.

    Posted July 11, 2008 at 11:39 am | Permalink
  37. Malcolm says

    But that’s exactly the point, Bob: you are asking for an objective “fact of the matter” about how we should behave that simply isn’t there. All we have are the normative urgings of our wired-in moral and evaluative intuitions, which are naturalistically explicable.

    Posted July 11, 2008 at 11:52 am | Permalink
  38. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – and your saying that it simply isn’t there begs the question at issue. It appears that you are saying that the way naturalism resolves the difficulty of explaining normativity is simply to deny that there is any such thing.

    BTW, if asking for objective facts of the matter is what you mean by absolutism, then I’m happy to be classified as an absolutist. And, as I suggested in an earlier comment, on my understanding of the naturalist project, it had better not reject objective facts. And if you say you only object to normative facts, well then, what do you mean by ‘object’?

    Posted July 11, 2008 at 1:02 pm | Permalink
  39. Malcolm says


    Fair enough – that was hasty, and unclear.

    More carefully put: under a naturalist view there are no normative “oughts” beyond our evolved moral intuitions. In other words, what we feel to be normative inclinations are dispositions built into us by adaptive selection, in the same way as our affinities for sweets, sex, etc.

    What I mean by absolutism is the insistence that the working models and definitions we use must correspond with philosophical exactitude to an objectively existing ontology. Instead, for example, under the naturalistic view, our reason is not perfect abstract Reason, but a “good enough” system of modeling the world’s regularities — and so forth. Likewise for the various categories and definitions we use. They are at best practically utile models.

    Posted July 11, 2008 at 1:28 pm | Permalink
  40. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – This is where you lose me. Are our evolved moral intuitions normative in fact, or are they only apparently normative?

    Posted July 11, 2008 at 2:05 pm | Permalink
  41. Malcolm says

    Bob, so I can be clear what you are asking, can you explain what you mean by that distinction?

    Posted July 11, 2008 at 2:15 pm | Permalink
  42. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – If our moral intuitions are normative in fact, then their claim on us doesn’t depend on our having inclinations, etc. to conform our behavior to the norms in question. Rather, inclinations, etc. must be judged in light of whether (or to what extent) they conform to the norms. Some people try to explain this in terms of “direction of fit.” With descriptive claims, the direction of fit is “toward the world” — i.e., the claim should fit the world. With normative claims it works the other way — i.e., the world should fit the claim. The problem of objective normativity is to explain how something could do both.

    Posted July 11, 2008 at 3:30 pm | Permalink
  43. Malcolm says

    Right, Bob.

    So, then, my naturalistic response is to say that our evolved moral intuitions are not normative in fact, but merely represent useful adaptations. That’s what I argued in this previous post.

    Posted July 11, 2008 at 4:41 pm | Permalink
  44. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – Your naturalistic response seems to give the game away since, rather than showing how to naturalize normativity, you dismiss it from the picture. That seems premature. Why not adopt a more tentative stance toward the whole issue? I don’t know how to naturalize normativity either, though in that earlier discussion I did suggest that it might involve drawing on the (presumed?) objectivity of rational norms. As I’ve said on many occasions, I definitely incline toward naturalism, but am unwilling to simply dismiss from consideration what is not presently amenable to a naturalistic explanation. In other words, why not say it’s an open question whether naturalism can be developed to accommodate normativity?

    Posted July 11, 2008 at 5:08 pm | Permalink
  45. Malcolm says


    Again, that seems fair, though frankly I don’t see the need to bother looking for an objective basis for normativity; it poses no difficulty for naturalism if no such basis is ever to be found. It all just strikes me as a wish to hang on to a comforting illusion.

    After all, unlike, say, the need to acount for consciousness, where naturalism must indeed issue what you call a “promissory note”, it’s not as if we have some other evidence that our normative intuitions are ontologically objective, and that therefore naturalism is in trouble if it can’t put them on such a footing. And we do already have a sensible evolutionary account of how our moral instincts might have arisen.

    But you’re right: I cannot foreclose on the possibility of a naturalistic account of normativity.

    Posted July 11, 2008 at 6:04 pm | Permalink
  46. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – I think you’re oversimplifying things with talk of normative intuitions and moral instincts. As I think we actually agreed in earlier discussion, at least moral norms (and I’d expand the claim) probably can’t be understood simply in terms of the dispositions and inclinations with which our evolutionary heritage has equipped us. Reason also has to enter the picture. Might this might be an important factor in understanding the sort of “claim” norms make on us? As you know, I suspect the answer to the question I pose is “Yes.” Is this just a comforting illusion? Strikes me rather differently. Note that I’m not even suggesting a turn toward non-natural explanations, unless it should turn out that truth can’t be accounted for naturalistically.

    Posted July 11, 2008 at 8:26 pm | Permalink
  47. Malcolm says


    Yes, indeed it would be an oversimplification to imagine that we are simply hard-wired by evolution with a complete look-up-table of normative guidelines, and I’m sure you understand that that isn’t what I’m suggesting (comments I make during working hours must often be kept rather brief, as well). We need look no further than the cultural evolution of moral norms in recent history to see that this is plainly not so. Morality is subject to continuous adjustment; it is even becoming a grave moral offense to drive a large car these days.

    On the other hand, adjustment of moral norms by the decade certainly isn’t a fact anyone would adduce in favor of there being any objective moral bedrock!

    I do expect you would agree, though, that there are many ethical traits — regarding honesty, obligations to members of one’s group, care of children, and various sorts of Golden-Rule-style reciprocity — that are apparently a universal part of the human architecture. As I’m sure you know, we even have special areas of the brain, “mirror neurons”, that appear to be dedicated to facilitating feelings of empathy.

    It is the general human disposition to this sort of ethical behavior that I’m referring to; there is no doubt that we are flexible enough to subject some, if not all, of this moral framework to review and modification, whether by direct philosophical effort or by the gradual and contingent unfolding of cultural change.

    The point I’m really making here — and I think we are in general agreement — is that there is a coherent non-supernatural account that can be made of how we got where we are. All of this architectural work was just handed up to us by eons of prior evolution; it is not surprising that when we finally started to sit up and take notice, just a few thousand years ago, of this staggeringly enormous fait accompli, that we might view the notion of its having such humble roots with considerable skepticism. In my view it is really a lingering remnant of the horror with which Darwinism was greeted in the 1860’s; we have managed, most of us (though not all!) to come to terms with the earthly origin of our species, but we still yearn to reserve a special place for our minds and our morals.

    Posted July 11, 2008 at 10:45 pm | Permalink
  48. peter says


    In this post I shall address your last response to my previous post. In the next one, if you do not mind, I will comment on your exchange with Bob on normativity.

    A. Our debate.

    1. I wish to distinguish between scientific theories such as physics and the theory of evolution and philosophical theories such as physicalism and naturalism. The former aim to explain physical phenomena that are considered antecedently clearly within their own domain: physics, for instance, aims to explain phenomena such as the motion of bodies, the behavior of gases, water, light etc; the theory of evolution in turn aims to explain the diversity of forms of life. Philosophical theories such as physicalism and naturalism by contrast aim to establish the thesis that the only entities that actually exist in the world are physical entities. All other entities are either reducible to physical entities or do not really exist.

    2. Just like the aim of scientific theories is different than the aim of philosophical theories, similarly the methodology of each differs. While we may not fully understand the precise nature of the scientific method, it undoubtedly involves some mixture of empirical investigation together with quantitative analysis (mathematics). There may be other components that are relevant. On the other hand, philosophical theories rely primarily on the method of argumentation (What else?). And while the method of argumentation employed in philosophy may occasionally rely upon the most recent findings of this or that scientific theory as premises, the focus in philosophy is in the end about the validity and soundness of an argument.

    3. A physicist working in the field of quantum mechanics is of course free to hypothesize about the nature of consciousness and maintain that consciousness is identical to or is nothing but the by-product of brain activity. And while such a hypothesis clearly involves in some way physical phenomena and it might even appeal to certain findings within physics (say the physicist appeals to certain findings in the theory of quantum mechanics to support the claim), it is not a claim within physics or the theory of quantum mechanics. The claim of this imagined physicist is not a claim within physics proper and he is not making it qua physicist. His colleagues, for instance, need not address this claim qua physicists. And the standards used to assess this claim are not to be found within physics but rather within philosophy. Of course, it is possible to embark upon an empirical investigation of such a claim; e.g., monitoring brain processes etc. But I doubt very much that there is a “crucial experiment” that can be devised in order to determine whether the physicalist hypothesis about consciousness is correct or the alternative dualist hypothesis is correct. The reason for this fact will emerge soon. So when a physicist makes a claim of the sort here considered he enters philosophy. And his claim is evaluated by the standards used in philosophy; namely, is the argument offered valid? are the premises of his argument true? And the same holds for anyone else who proposes philosophical theories such as physicalism and naturalism.

    4. Which brings me to you! In your reply you lament the following:
    “Foremost of all, I think, it must be pointed out that we have here, once again, a philosophical insistence on absolutes: it should apparently not be considered sufficient simply to conditionally and pragmatically use the evolutionary account as a provisional model, one that provides empirically useful guidelines for organizing research, accounting for observed regularities, etc.; what is being demanded, it seems, is that the evolutionary account must lay claim to capital-T Truth in a way that that no scientific theory ever has ever offered, nor has ever claimed to offer.”

    I emphasize the phrases: “philosophical insistence on absolutes” and the phrase that non-naturalist demand that “the evolutionary account must lay claim to capital-T Truth in a way that that no scientific theory ever has ever offered”.

    (i) What you view as a strange and regrettable insistence on “absolutes” is in fact nothing but the normal standard within philosophy, for better or worst. If you are going to argue that consciousness for instance is nothing but a physical process, then you better give a *sound* argument to that effect (I shall say something more about his later). For it is clear that we cannot simply look-and-see; nor can we give a mathematical proof (nor a statistical one); nor can we build a special laboratory in which we can devise an experiment and determine once and for all the matter. The best we can do is cite certain empirical findings about the behavior of the brain (borrow from some scientific theory), and use them as premises to conclude that…what?…well that the properties we antecedently associate with consciousness are derivable from these premises. And, now, I ask you this: How are we going to assess whether such an argument is acceptable?
    (ii) Well, the first thing we need to insure is that the conclusion logically follows from the premises; so, the argument is valid. So logic is involved. Second we need to verify that the premises are true. So truth is involved. If these two things are established beyond doubt, then the conclusion must be true. And in this case, the putative conclusion would be that such and such property antecedently associated with consciousness is in fact identical to such and such a brain process.
    (iii) What other methodology would you propose in order to evaluate the claims of the naturalists? Suppose someone claims that all physical phenomena are nothing but mental events in the mind of God (someone indeed seems to have made this very claim). Wouldn’t you demand that they must provide a sound argument that supports this claim? The non-naturalist demands the very same thing.
    (iv) And so naturalists who rely on the theory of evolution to put forward philosophical theses are required to present sound arguments. So the demand is not for some mysterious truth with capital T: the demand is to present an argument that can be reasonably taken to be sound. And the demand for a sound argument is not similarly emphasized within science, and for a good reason.

    5. It is not easy to decipher the standards you offer in the quotation above.
    For instance, what do you mean by the phrase “conditionally and pragmatically use the evolutionary account as a provisional model”? A model for what? Consciousness? Intentionality? But, if some part of the theory of evolution is to be used as a model for intentionality, for instance, then it must feature some of the typical properties associated with intentionality or consciousness. Does it? Our pre-theoretical conception of consciousness is that it features the property of privacy or subjective experience. For instance, I am conscious, sometimes very much so, of my toothache, but not of yours. Which part of the theory of evolution should we use, conditionally and pragmatically, as a provisional model to account for the subjective experience of a toothache? Remember, this provisional model is required to account for the facts about the subjective and private nature of pains such as toothaches. For it is these sort of facts that we consider to be essential features of consciousness, for instance.

    6. So, when you lament the fact that non-naturalists demand too high a standard from naturalists, you in fact lament the fact that naturalism is a philosophical thesis and not a scientific theory. Yet it is these high demands that philosophy imposes upon philosophical discussion in this or that area that eventually lead to the spin-off of certain sciences from philosophy. This history contains a lesson.
    True naturalists should rejoice at the fact that some philosophers impose high demands upon naturalists and insist that their arguments must conform to high standards. For it is this process that might eventually lead to the conversion of naturalism from a philosophical thesis to a scientific theory. So I invite you to lament instead the fact that some philosophers, just like many revolutionaries, are so eager to see naturalism win in their own lifetime that they are willing to by-pass the natural evolutionary process that leads some philosophical theses to become genuine scientific theories. There is one thing about such truths: they cannot be earned cheap. If naturalism is to ever become a scientific theory, then it better go through the grueling examination process afforded in philosophy. And, then, perhaps it would emerge eventually on the other side and earn a scientific status.


    Posted July 11, 2008 at 10:46 pm | Permalink
  49. Malcolm says


    Thank you again for your patient efforts here; your care and precision are chastening and instructive. Indeed I must admit that I can fairly be charged with blurring the distinction between science and philosophy in my last.

    I would like to review your remarks point by point.

    1) I must agree.

    2) I must agree here also, though it is important to stress that a philosophical conclusion, however valid its argument, rests ultimately upon its premises, and that empirical data about the world, which you mention as “occasionally” being of interest in such regard, can in fact play a vital role in limiting the scope of tenable philosophical conclusions, and have indeed done so over the ages. In particular, if our aim is to philosophize about ourselves and our place in the world, then the ever-increasing collection of empirical data about what we are, how we got to be what we are, the range of phenomena that are physically explicable, and the manner in which we can explain them, matters a great deal.

    3) I think that here, you reserve too much to the exclusive domain of philosophy; you cannot know at this point that consciousness is not some aspect of physics. I can imagine the crucial experiment you describe: a physicist armed with a device that makes an alteration in some aspect of the quantum state of a conscious subject induces, with predictable and repeatable results, a conscious experience in the subject. Furthermore, by running the experiment in the other direction, our physicist is able accurately to report on the subject’s conscious experiences. We can even imagine that the device might act as as a conduit, transferring one subject’s experiences into the consciousness of another. You might object that this is mere correlation, not subjectivity itself, but it would certainly begin to seem to be special pleading, rather as if one made the same case about the various detections, broadcasts, and transductions we are able to achieve with electromagnetic fields.

    There have been prior examples of areas that were considered forever off-limits to empirical study, for example the composition of the stars.

    4) You are quite right to seize upon this, as I was far from clear here. What I was objecting to regarding “absolutes” was the assumption that the concepts and categories we are trafficking in must — or even can — perfectly, and more importantly, discretely model some aspect of the actual world. In particular, I wished to push back on the claim that Bill’s infinte-regress argument about meaning could confidently be assumed not to be susceptible to the fallacy illustrated by the Prime Mammal example. My point was that it is not required that we admit the existence of an actually existing abstract category of Mammals in the world; there is, rather, just an actual collection of slowly varying beasts, which we can, more or less loosely, refer to as “mammals” as a cognitive and linguistic convenience. Likewise, the insistence that there actually exists an absolutely defined abstraction called Meaning, which admits of no similar gradations or looseness, seems rather to beg the question against the evolutionary, naturalistic account. Again I must raise the intermediate examples, of non-mental intentionality, that I have mentioned before, and that I have yet to hear any response from you or Bill about: the ant’s trail, the bee’s dance. There is meaning in both, we seem to agree — but no mind, as the creatures involved are presumably not conscious, nor even potentially so. Such examples provide empirical premises that one might use to create valid philosophical arguments for the presence of intentionality in what are really no more than small machines. If this is not a fly in the dualist ointment, I hope you can tell me why.

    My remarks about capital-T Truth referred to the naturalist’s need to acknowledge that if our brains, with which we presumably do our thinking, are biological engines that operate according to mechanical cause and effect, then we must accept that the results they produce are finite and imperfect, and the models of the world that they manipulate cannot be expected to be absolutely congruent with ontological bedrock. One might object: then why should we trust them? To which the naturalist responds: because they do a pretty good job. Not perfect, of course, but pretty good.

    5) Again, I was not clear. I meant that we use the evolutionary account as a provisional model of how we came to be, and how intentionality entered the world. It is not itself a model of intentionality, though of course by virtue of being “about” the history of life it is indeed intentional. But this is only a problem if it is given that intentionality itself is non-naturalistic, which is of course part of the matter in dispute.

    As for toothaches, it seems simple enough to give a naturalistic account of why I would be conscious of my toothache and not yours: the tooth is neurally connected to my brain and not yours, and it is our brains that give rise to our subjective experiencing, in a way that is not fully understood. Yes, the naturalist must give a “promissory note” for that explanation, but to claim that a dualistic account offers any greater explanatory value is just handwaving, I think; no matter how much I study the the dualist position, it seems to boil down to this: we look at the physical world, are baffled by how subjectivity might arise, and simply declare it irreducibly “mental”, and the problem solved. It is nothing more than David Lewis’s incredulous stare. The natural sciences have, in the past, given us radically new ways to understand the phenomena we observe, and a great deal of effort is being made in this field.

    6) Once more, I agree. There may indeed be no philosophical resolution possible in favor of naturalism. It may also be, however, that as naturalistic accounts come to compellingly describe more and more of the observable phenomena of the world, that the naturalistic view simply advances by attrition — or, as I think Planck said science itself advances, funeral by funeral. That is certainly not a philosophical victory, however.

    Indeed, natural scientists should thank philosophers for teaching them to insist on sound argument and logical rigor. But the philosophers might also “occasionally” thank the scientists for providing them with the empirically reliable premises that give their work the traction it needs to remain relevant to the real world.

    Thanks again. I very much appreciate your joining us in this discussion, and your holding my feet to the fire.

    Posted July 12, 2008 at 1:35 am | Permalink
  50. Addofio says

    I’ve been away from the discussion for few days, and have had time only for a quick scan now. So I’ll understand if y’all feel it’s a bit played out, or if you feel I’m just missing the point entirely. But I still feel that naturalism is being presented/discussed here in a form equivalent to reductionism, and I don’t see that they need be equivalent. That is, reductionism–by which, in a nutshell, I mean the notion that everything can be explained in terms of physics–would certainly be a form of naturalism, but one could certainly believe in naturalism while still considering that there are emergent phenomena at higher livels of complexity that cannot be explained using only the conceptual tools of physics. I think the distinction between reductionism and naturalism is important, and could be helpful.

    Second, the question of what’s real and what’s not is a bit slippery. For instance, consider purple people eaters. Now carefully build up an idea for yourself of a purple people eater. What does it look like? How big is it? Does it have a family life? . . . . Have it in mind? Good. Well, I think we’d all agree that purple people eaters do not exist, are not real–but, it seems perfectly reasonable to me to say that your concept of a purple people eater does exist as a concept (imagine that phrase in italics) and hence is real. To claim that concepts are not real (in contrast to the content of the concepts, or what the concepts refer to) seems to pre-suppose that only physical entities are real. Of course, I suppose to say that it is real may be pre-supposing that non-physical entities are real; in that case, it becomes difficult to see where to begin a discussion of these ideas that would not be presuming some of the very points being debated.

    (P.S. Yikes! You should warn people to copy their comments before clicking on the “new image” button. I couldn’t distinguish whether one character was a 0 or a O, so clicked the button–only to see a pristine, empty comment box before my eyes. My heart sank–should I try to re-rewrite, or just get up and walk away? Fortunately, the “back” arrow took me back to my comment.)

    Posted July 14, 2008 at 10:28 am | Permalink
  51. Malcolm says

    Hi Addofio,

    Thanks for joining us again.

    You are right that “emergent” phenomena are difficult to describe at lower hierarchical levels; it would be immensely tedious, for example, to do meteorology at the level of subatomic physics. But although naturalism and reductionism are certainly different concepts, the distinction you want to make, I think, is not between naturalism and reductionism, but reductionism and holism.

    Further complicating all of this is the fact that the heirarchies are not neatly organized; there is in nature a good deal of feedback between them. The coalescence of a start out of a cloud of dust, for example, occurs at a level that involves an enormous volume of space and the higher-level motions of a great deal of matter; describing it at the level of particle physics would be absurdly difficult. But once the star is assembled, if it has sufficient mass it will collapse into degenerate matter, which affects the entire system at a quantum-mechanical level.

    That we can think about non-existent things, meaning that they can “be” without “existing”, has been examined at some length by philosophers, notably Alexius Meinong; you may be interested to follow that trail.

    Meanwhile, I’m taking what’s called a “nominalist” position here: the abstract categories we use are mere conveniences. There is no such thing as “Dog”, for example: there is only this dog or that dog; we learn what sort of things might plausibly be called “dogs” by generalizing over what we have seen others use the term to refer to.

    Finally, I’ve just tested that comment-image feature, and it seemed to refresh without losing the comments. What browser are you using? I always recommend that readers register for an account; that way you don’t have to use the image thingy at all.


    Posted July 14, 2008 at 10:55 am | Permalink
  52. bob koepp says

    Addofio and Malcolm – I agree that it’s often not clear what ‘naturalism’ is being contrasted with. I suppose in my own case that I’m harking back to ethical theory when I raise normativity as a problem for naturalists. In that context, naturalistic discourse is constrained to use only descriptive terms — i.e., terms that don’t make any “essential reference” to normative/prescriptive concepts. So for me, to naturalize a normative concept would require showing how to bridge the gap between descriptive and prescriptive discourse.

    Posted July 14, 2008 at 1:24 pm | Permalink
  53. Malcolm says

    So for me, to naturalize a normative concept would require showing how to bridge the gap between descriptive and prescriptive discourse.

    But Bob, don’t you think that, for example, that our sense that we “ought” to take care of our little children could arise quite naturalistically from its adaptive value? Doesn’t that constitute the sort of bridge you want?

    Posted July 14, 2008 at 1:36 pm | Permalink
  54. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – What could have evolved is certain urges or inclinations to engage in certain sorts of activities. But that doesn’t get us to “ought.” Additionally, many of us subsribe to various “oughts” that stand little to no chance of being adaptive in an evolutionary sense.

    Posted July 14, 2008 at 2:04 pm | Permalink
  55. Malcolm says


    No, it doesn’t get us to any sort of metaphysically objective “ought”, I quite agree. My naturalistic view is that there is no such thing.

    The point I’ve been making is that the adaptive urges and inclinations are actually, at bottom, all the “ought” there is, and that the other ones you mention — all the higher-level “oughts” like “I ought to get this report done before the meeting on Tuesday” have been built up from those by way of social interactions, cultural evolution, rational inquiry, and so on.

    Posted July 14, 2008 at 4:01 pm | Permalink
  56. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – Is it also part of your naturalistic view that the oughts or norms of reason (e.g., the so-called “law” of non-contradiction) are, at bottom, just manifestations of adaptive urges and inclinations? And what do we do about urges and inclinations that can be easily understood from an evolutionary viewpoint (e.g., cheat if there’s little likelihood of being caught), but which most of us eschew as rules for living?

    Posted July 14, 2008 at 4:55 pm | Permalink
  57. Malcolm says

    Well, as I’ve said above, Bob, I do think that at bottom the naturalistic view means that our reasoning proceeds according to cause-and-effect process in our brains, so that such things as the “law” of non-contradiction boil down to the cognitive models we make of the world’s regularities.

    It sounds as if you think I’m arguing that all the contents of our cognitive inventory have to be explicitly adaptive, but that’s certainly not what I’m saying; obviously I am not about to offer a Darwinian explanation of the infield-fly rule, for example (not at the human-evolution level, anyway). But that doesn’t mean that the fact that the runners “ought” to go on a full count with two outs exists as some objective, Platonic abstraction, either. Indeed, I don’t think any of our “oughts” exist in that metaphysically objective way.

    As for why we eschew cheating even if we don’t get caught, I think I could give you a fully naturalistic account of that without much trouble, one would rely not at all on anything more than our biological and cultural evolution.

    Posted July 14, 2008 at 5:16 pm | Permalink
  58. peter says

    Malcolm, Bob

    Re: Naturalism and Normativity:
    I do not have much time right now to explore this complicated issue, so I will make a few short comments.

    (1) Logical Gap: Hume was the first to note that there is a logical-gap between ought-statements and is-statements. Hume’s point is that an argument consisting of descriptive premises only and an ought-conclusion is never logically valid.
    (2) Moore noted much later that any definition or reductive attempt of normativity in descriptive or purely factual discourse faces the open-question argument.
    Example: suppose one proposes to define the normative term ‘right’ as maximizing pleasure. Moore’s point is that as long as we can ask the question “But, is maximizing pleasure right?” the definition is inadequate because it left something out from the meaning of the term ‘right’.

    The above two points suggest that the naturalistic approach to normativity is going to have to be pretty intricate and cannot simply take the form of a definitional or a direct reduction of normativity to naturalistic language. Malcolm’s suggestion to take adaptive dispositions as the basis of normativity needs to be further clarified. E.g., does Malcolm mean that he can show that every attitude describable in normative terms can be correlated to some adaptive disposition?


    Posted July 14, 2008 at 5:54 pm | Permalink
  59. bob koepp says

    I agree with Peter that a naturalistic approach to normativity is going to have to be “pretty intricate,” and the devil is in those intricate details — which nobody has yet mastered. That Darwinian theory has provided a plausible account of natural functions, rescuing that concept from its entanglement with teleological notions, does give encouragement to naturalism. Having a plausible account of natural functions, and thus reason for optimisim about naturalism, isn’t nearly enough to vindicate the whole project.

    Also, questioning the bona fides of naturalism is not at all the same as arguing for Platonism. That’s a red herring that I wish we could put behind us.

    Posted July 14, 2008 at 7:46 pm | Permalink
  60. Malcolm says


    I hope I wasn’t giving the impression that I thought naturalism and Platonism were exact opposites; certainly to affirm one isn’t to deny the other.

    In this context I wish only to distinguish between different foundations for meaning, purpose, good, evil, and so forth. They might have a mind-independent, abstract existence, they might spring from the mind of God, or they might arise quite naturally as increasingly complex lifeforms come into being, and enter into increasingly complex social arrangements — which is of course the view I am plumping for.

    Posted July 14, 2008 at 10:18 pm | Permalink
  61. Malcolm says

    Peter (and Bob too),

    I do agree that human normativity is so nuanced and complex, and so varied, that an evolutionary account must do a lot of lifting (although the alternatives above, I have to say, do very little lifting at all: they simply invoke various supernatural skyhooks and call it a day, with any serious effort reserved for fending off assaults on their various philosophical difficulties).

    Peter, you are quite right to point out the Humean gap. That isn’t really a problem for this view, however, because our normative axioms and intuitions do not come to us as formal arguments, but rather as instinctive affinities and aversions, and as learned social norms. There is nothing in Hume’s argument to say that the evolutionary “is’s” of the world cannot produce beings that have such moral and normative intuitions and instincts. Such beings are simply going to run into trouble when they try to justify their intuitions philosophically, that’s all, and so they must posit concepts like God in order to ground them, until they come to understand their evolutionary origins.

    Also, Moore’s problem is only a problem if the desired goal is to end the reductive analysis with some sort of authoritative grounding for “right”. My position, though, is that such an effort is doomed to fail; the regress simply dwindles backward through simpler and simpler organisms and interests.

    As I noted above, I am not seeking specific adaptive explanations of every aspect of human normativity: ever since a certain critical mass was reached in our cognitive, linguistic, and social complexity, an explosive process of cultural and memetic change has moved things along far faster than biological evolution. (Again, I’m not looking for a purely biological explanation of why you “ought” to try an onside kick when you’re down by a field goal with a minute left to play, and I hope you aren’t seriously asking me for one.) But I do think much of the spadework has already been done for evolutionary accounts of the fundamental aspects of human normativity that the others have built upon. In particular I think David Sloan Wilson has pushed things along very nicely in recent years with his re-analysis of group selection (as part of a broader re-examination of multi-level selection) as accounting for a great many aspects of hunman social instincts and behavior (especially with regard to religion and its role as a mechanism of social cohesion).

    Posted July 14, 2008 at 10:33 pm | Permalink
  62. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – I’m beginning to feel like we’re just circling round and round the issues, and not making actual contact.

    Nobody here has argued that naturalism is a flawed view, or proposed any non-natural accounts of normativity. But simply dismissing the “problem” and/or vague appeals to evolutionary accounts of various behavioral dispositions doesn’t inspire confidence that the goods can be delivered. I’ve noted that evolutionary theory has provided a plausible naturalistic account of natural functions. It’s managed this by showing in a fair amount of detail how the “translation” is effected between “function talk” and “selection talk”. So far as I know, nothing remotely like this has been accomplished in the area of normativity. If I’m right about this, we’re being handed a lot of promissory notes, with virtually no collateral to back them up.

    Posted July 15, 2008 at 9:40 am | Permalink
  63. Malcolm says

    Bob, I think you are selling short the robust efforts that have already been made in this area; you make it sound as if we had a satisfactory naturalistic account of human bipedalism and dentition, but nothing much more. But evolutionary psychology already has a lot to say about why we think the way we do generally, and people like Marc Hauser, Steven Pinker et al. have been focusing quite squarely on the underpinnings of our moral and other normative dispositions. In particular David Sloan Wilson — whose book Darwin’s Cathedral I must recommend — has given what I think is a persuasive reckoning of the origins of religion.

    Posted July 15, 2008 at 10:28 am | Permalink
  64. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – Bipedalism and dentition? Didn’t I refer explicitly to behavioral dispositions? But, since you raise the issue of relevance, please look back at some of your posts where you “beg off” addressing how to construe normativity in natural contexts with comments about games (perhaps the clearest examples we have of socially constructed rule-governed practices). C’mon already.

    I’m reasonably familiar with the work of Wilson, Hauser, Pinker, etc, which does a very good job of showing how a variety of behavioral dispositions of interest to moral theory could emerge in quite plausible selection regimes. But those dispositions are of interest to moral theory primarily as examples of of behaviors that have been either praised or condemned — not because they throw light on the reasons why we should or should not join in the praise and blame. Indeed, your talk of “moral and other normative dispositions” simply raises without answering the question, “In virtue of what is a disposition moral or normative?” To be told it’s the product of selection, or of complex social, cognitive and linguistic processes only moves the qeustion one step back; i.e., what is it about certain social, cognitive and linguistic processes that confers normative force on things?

    Posted July 15, 2008 at 11:21 am | Permalink
  65. Malcolm says

    Forgive me, Bob, if I exaggerated the size of the explanatory gap you are pressing me to close.

    I think in large part it is the praise and blame itself that confers normative force, and that the tendency to praise and blame arises from the existence of optimal solutions to group success: the “free-floating” rationales of social evolution. If it benefits a human group for everyone to play by the rules — thereby lifting the fitness of the group as a whole, and presumably the average fitness of the members of the group by more than the individual cost of rule-obeying — then what will happen is a sort of arms race between cheaters and cheater-detectors. If the differential between the “play-by-the-rules” benefit and the individual cost is high(you get a lot for being a “good guy”), and the penalty for being caught cheating is high (exclusion from the group, loss of mating privileges, etc.) and the chance of being detected is also high, then it becomes adaptive to be able to learn to internalize the rules, to make a model that one can use to imagine in prospect the urgings of the group to conform, and to weigh the opprobrium that will result from failure to do so. It is not unreasonable to imagine that a “Baldwin effect” would apply here, favoring those brains that are better able to learn to conform socially and form such internal models, and that even over time some of the more universal underpinnings of such modeling — for example the “mirror neurons” that apparently are responsible for feelings of empathy — would come to be built in. I think that’s the origin of conscience.

    But as for whether we should or should not join in the praise or blame, I don’t think there is any fundamental fact of the matter to be found at all. While it may be that certain norms may always be optimal solutions for social animals, and are therefore “objective” in the sense that they are winning strategies and thus will always be selected for, that in itself doesn’t give you an “ought” as far as endorsing them once they are out in the open. We are in new moral territory here, with the ground giving way a bit.

    Posted July 15, 2008 at 12:01 pm | Permalink
  66. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – I appreciate your efforts to be more explicit about how you think various factors contribute to our tendency to see certain things as praiseworthy or blameworthy. And I think I understand your remark that “in large part it is the praise and blame itself that confers normative force” — a bit of operant conditioning with the right sort of reinforcement and people will praise or blame more or less on cue. I think that sort of explanation is probably appropriate for the vast majority of praising and blaming. But when people get reflective, they tend to either reject such conditioning as the ground of norms or embrace a sort of nihilism. I’d guess that I fall into the former group, and you into the latter.

    Posted July 15, 2008 at 12:45 pm | Permalink
  67. Malcolm says

    Yes, Bob, that’s a fair summary. I simply don’t think, at bottom, that there is any bedrock fact of the matter about any “ought” whatsoever. It’s rather radically up to us. I think that this is a conclusion of Darwinism that tends to get swept under the rug.

    That said, there is no reason at all for us to reject the norms that impel us to be nice to one another, etc. Indeed, I don’t know that we could, any more than we could decide to stop enjoying sex, music, food, and so forth.

    Posted July 15, 2008 at 12:56 pm | Permalink
  68. Malcolm says

    Bob, do you have any particular reason that you feel you “ought” to be in the first group rather than the second?

    Posted July 15, 2008 at 1:16 pm | Permalink
  69. bob koepp says

    I suppose one reason I think I ought to be in the first group is because I think (though I can’t argue rigorously for it) that rational norms do represent a bedrock fact of the matter. Nihilism, if it is held to consistently, undermines any critically rational project. Of course, consistent nihilism can be inconsistent.

    Posted July 15, 2008 at 1:46 pm | Permalink
  70. Malcolm says

    So if under the Darwinian explanation I’m arguing for, rather than regressing to bedrock, our norms simply vanish into the sand like the Amu Darya, where then do you look for solid ground?

    Posted July 15, 2008 at 3:02 pm | Permalink
  71. bob koepp says

    As I’ve suggested on several occasions, I suspect that normative force (as distinct from “mere” urges and inclinations) derives from the norms of objective reason. I’m not even tempted to think that a darwinian account could undermine those norms since, if rational norms are illusory, the darwinian account has nothing to recommend it, rationally speaking, that is.

    Posted July 15, 2008 at 3:46 pm | Permalink
  72. Malcolm says

    I’m not sure what you mean by “norms of objective reason” — can you help me understand what you have in mind there?

    On a naturalistic, Darwinian account our ability to think is just a neurological process taking place in our brains: a process that models the world’s regularities well enough for us to get by, but makes no claim to perfect conformance with any objective standards of Reason (wherever they might exist).

    Posted July 15, 2008 at 4:10 pm | Permalink
  73. Malcolm says

    It seems to me that if a coherent and sufficient Darwinian account of the origins of our normative intuitions could be made, then an appeal to metaphysically objective norms would begin to be special pleading, no? But then of course we are left to deal with nihilism again — a prospect that doesn’t bother me, but which many find distasteful enough to avoid at all costs.

    Posted July 15, 2008 at 4:24 pm | Permalink
  74. Malcolm says

    But we’ve probably got to the point where we’re circling round and round, as you said above.

    Posted July 15, 2008 at 4:34 pm | Permalink
  75. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – I have to be quick here.
    There are features of some of what we loosely call thinking that, while compatible with a darwinian story, are unlikely to have a darwinian/selectionist explanation of their own — namely the capacity to construct idealizations (at least some of which we have good reason to believe are in principle (now there’s an idealization!) unrealizable. I strongly incline to the view that normativity of the sort we’re discussing essentially involves idealizations. And since idealizations might well be unrealizable, I think they probably fall into the ontological category of abstracta. We know that non-abstract entities can represent abstracta. And we know that there are truths about the represented abstracta that are not, properly speaking, true of the representational media (e.g., 2 is the square root of 4, but the bit of the world that represents 2 is not the square root of anything). This is too quick, and doesn’t address any particularly salient issues about norms and normativity. But it should be enough to give you pause about an straightforward “explanation” of normativity in darwinian terms.

    Posted July 15, 2008 at 4:55 pm | Permalink
  76. Malcolm says


    There are features of some of what we loosely call thinking that, while compatible with a darwinian story, are unlikely to have a darwinian/selectionist explanation of their own — namely the capacity to construct idealizations…

    Well, here’s where we might part company. While it is obviously true that we won’t be giving an adaptive explanation of every particular conceptualization, I think that the human brain’s ability to function as a flexible, reconfigurable, general-purpose idealization engine was indeed highly adaptive.

    But I am a pretty hard-core nominalist, and leery of the whole notion of abstracta, perhaps more so than most.

    Posted July 15, 2008 at 5:47 pm | Permalink
  77. Malcolm says

    I strongly incline to the view that normativity of the sort we’re discussing essentially involves idealizations. And since idealizations might well be unrealizable, I think they probably fall into the ontological category of abstracta.

    Do you flirt with dualism here? If not, how do we come to include such abstracta in our cognitive inventory?

    Posted July 15, 2008 at 11:36 pm | Permalink
  78. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – Am I flirting with dualism? I don’t know about flirting, but if you think anything I’ve said about idealization and abstracta poses difficulties for whatever version of naturalism you espouse, then I think the discussion might actually be progressing. I think it’s obvious that a naturalistic account of normativity must come to grips with idealizations and abstracta, since these are certainly features of the territory as we know it.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “flexible, reconfigurable, general-purpose idealization engine,” but if idealizations of the sort that are sometimes called “limit concepts” are acknowledged, I think we have exactly zero evidence that a story about adaption will suffice to explain the phenomena of interest.

    Also, I introduced idealizations and abstracta into the discussion rather than raise once again what I’ve called the “universalism” or “impersonalism” of rational and moral norms. As I’ve said in other discussions, I think such universalism requires that we move very carefully when we argue that normativity as we know it is “continuous” with evolved behaviors. Here’s a short article I just stumbled on that might help you to appreciate why I am wary about quick and easy versions of naturalism.

    Posted July 16, 2008 at 9:43 am | Permalink
  79. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    Yes, we might be progressing, at least insofar as we are getting a clearer idea of where each other stands.

    What I meant by that short description of the human brain was that it represents a radical improvement in its ability to generate models not only of the world, but models of its own models, of the thoughts of others, and so on. One might sum that up, or at least one aspect of it, as the ability to think in metaphors.

    I’m not sure in what way you are suggesting the monkey story (which, in typically ignorant and irritating fashion, was illustrated with a picture of a chimpanzee) undermines an evolutionary account of our cognitive evolution; indeed I would see it as rather the opposite: the monkeys seem to show some rudimentary aspects of our social behavior but not others, and they are incapable of dealing with tokens in the way we are, so need items of intrinsic value (marshmallows) to play the game. This is pretty much what I’d expect — as social primates they are a good intermediate example.

    As for abstracta, I am not inclined to see them as ontologically real objects that we somehow apprehend through any supernatural connection, but rather as cognitive conveniences we carry around in our heads: metaphors that we rely on to make useful models of the world’s habits. Their ontological status is beside the point in my view, though; regardless of whether such abstracta really have some sort of Platonic existence, my position would be that we get hold of our versions of them in non-supernatural ways, and the actual ontological status of such abstracta may well have to remain epistomologically opaque (which disinclines me to make any ontological claims about them at all, and certainly disinclines me toward asserting positively that such things exist). We have cognitive apparatus built in for various sorts of intuitive physics and other essential modeling of the world, but on top of that we have an excellent general-purpose metaphor-making system, and I think that having such equipment conferred on us such an enormous adaptive advantage that a sound evolutionary account can be made for it.

    There’s nothing “quick and easy” about this; indeed, I think articulating such an account requires far more spadework and elbow grease than dualistic models.

    Posted July 16, 2008 at 10:58 am | Permalink
  80. bob koepp says

    Malcolm –
    1) The part of the “monkey story” that I hoped would catch your attention was the bit about what happens when they “overbenefit” from an exchange. It appears the monkey sense of “fairness” doesn’t include the sort of universalism or impersonalism that I’ve frequently remarked as an essential feature of morality. You might think it’s a “small step” to add universalism to the picture. I’d like to see how that small step might have been effected.

    2) I don’t understand how the idea of a metaphor is supposed to throw light on what happens when we employ idealizations. For a relatively simple example, how does metaphor get us to notions like “in the absence of interfering factors…”? I just don’t see it.

    As for abstracta, I didn’t say anything about apprehending them through a supernatural connection. I simply held them up as an example of something that naturalism must deal with explicitly and in detail — not through promissory notes. But I’m becoming more confused by the minute about what your position actually is. If, as you say, “the actual ontological status of such abstracta may well have to remain epistomologically opaque (which disinclines me to make any ontological claims about them at all…)” then it would seem your version of naturalism must be neutral vis a vis metaphysical/ontological commitments. But then, what’s your beef with dualism?

    Posted July 16, 2008 at 12:27 pm | Permalink
  81. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    1) I did take note of the monkeys’ willingness to take whatever they can get, rather than screwing the donor for his stinginess. It’s easy enough to imagine a “free-floating” group-level rationale for enforcing a certain level of sharing; we humans have evolved the additional cognitive equipment to make it work. Unlike the simpler brains of monkeys, ours are make models of one another that say “if I am willing to spurn the dime he wants to give me out of his ten bucks just to punish him for being such a cheapskate, maybe he’ll see why I’m doing it, and be a little more generous next time.”

    2) Here’s how such a thing might work. A lot of our modeling uses internal metaphors taken from intuitive physics about motion and spatial relationships; for example our employees work “under” us, life is a “journey”, etc. (Steven Pinker unpacks this sort of thing in fascinating detail in his book The Stuff of Thought, by the way). So the example you give might be handled by forming a metaphor of an attempted movement from point A (matters as they stand now) to B (matters as we’d like them to be). If we were trying physically to move an object from A to B, we could imagine physical obstructions blocking our movement. This model, which is built on ancient and innate adaptive models of the physical world, acts as a metaphor for “in the absence of interfering factors…”

    Regarding abstracta, that I am willing to be agnostic about their ontological reality is just a concession on my part to being unable to offer any sort of philosophical proof of their nonexistence. But I have no reason to include them in a description of the world, either, so I don’t.

    My beef with mind/body dualism is based on several objections: first, that it makes bizarre claims about causality (I realize that there you will remind me that causality is a puzzle on its own, but this takes it one step further); second, that it seems naive, and adds no explanatory value whatsoever; third, that it strikes me as just another “God of the Gaps” spackle-job in the face of a challenging puzzle, and tends to foreclose on further inquiry; fourth, that it must go through acrobatic contortions to account for the obvious causal coupling between the physical state of the brain and subjective experience; and fifth, that there is no good reason whatsoever to take it seriously at all, other than that we don’t know yet how matter produces subjective awareness.

    Posted July 16, 2008 at 1:34 pm | Permalink
  82. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – Again, other things press, and I must be brief.
    I’ll look at what Pinker says about metaphors — from what you say above, it sounds like he’s borrowed freely from Lakoff. In any case, I don’t see anything here about how metaphors would take us to idealizations. I won’t pursue it right now, but your example concerning the absence of interfering factors doesn’t get at what I had in mind.

    Similarly, I don’t see anything in your remarks about rationales for ensuring a certian level of sharing that addresses the issue of universalism in norms. Perhaps you were looking at the stuff about stinginess rather than the stuff about overbenefit.

    Don’t you think we have reason to include numbers in our description of the world?

    Posted July 16, 2008 at 3:57 pm | Permalink
  83. Malcolm says


    Yes, Pinker does indeed draw on Lakoff extensively (and with full credit).

    I don’t see the human guilt-response to overbenefit as problematic at all; again, we are just referring to an internal model of the voice of the group. We know that in public we would be chastized for our greed, and we carry around a little simulation, aka “conscience”. It’s hard for me to see why a naturalistic account of human behavior would be blocked by this.

    Sure, numbers are handy ways for us to parse the world. If three bears go into a cave, it’s useful to make sure that all three come out before we go in ourselves. But I don’t see any reason to go beyond that to confidence that they exist, mind-independently, as Platonic abstracta, if that’s where you’re headed.

    Posted July 16, 2008 at 4:11 pm | Permalink
  84. peter says

    Malcolm, Bob,

    Malcolm says:

    “My beef with mind/body dualism is based on several objections: first, that it makes bizarre claims about causality (I realize that there you will remind me that causality is a puzzle on its own, but this takes it one step further); second, that it seems naive, and adds no explanatory value whatsoever; third, that it strikes me as just another “God of the Gaps” spackle-job in the face of a challenging puzzle, and tends to foreclose on further inquiry; fourth, that it must go through acrobatic contortions to account for the obvious causal coupling between the physical state of the brain and subjective experience; and fifth, that there is no good reason whatsoever to take it seriously at all, other than that we don’t know yet how matter produces subjective awareness.”

    Five objections. Lets discuss each on its own:

    (1) Causality: is bizarre on its own, as you note. Moreover, the term ’cause’ as we know it from common-sense discourse does not appear in most theoretical physics (certainly it does not appear in the formulation of the laws of physics) and it has no role in quantum mechanics. So it just might be that ’cause’ is not part of the physical world either. Why, then, should this be an objection against dualism. And conversely, if we accept it as a relation among physical objects, what is the problem of accepting it among mental items?

    (2) “Naive” and without “explanatory value”: what king of objection you intend to convey by labeling dualism as “naive”?
    Dualism does have an explanatory value. For example, it explains the phenomenon that each person features their own subjective consciousness; it explains our sense that we occasionally choose freely and are not merely the subject of deterministic causes; it explains the intentional component of our mental life; just to mention a few.
    Perhaps the objection is that the form of explanation dualism offers does not conform to standards used in physics, for instance. But, if that is the objection, then you ought to object to the theory of evolution because it too fails to conform to the standards typical in physics proper. In fact, the very explanations you have offered in your account of normativity have no place in physical theory.

    (3) “it strikes me as just another “God of the Gaps” spackle-job in the face of a challenging puzzle, and tends to foreclose on further inquiry”:
    I am not sure what you mean by the phrase “God of the Gaps” as an objection. And as for the charge that dualism “tends to foreclose on further inquiry”, I wonder what historical evidence you have for that claim. Here is some very siginificant counter-evidence:
    Descartes, who introduced the philosophy of mind, was a dualist. He was the first who focused our attention on the mental as a distinctive phenomenon. Due to his efforts and the efforts of many of his critics the subject of philosophy of mind and the nature of the mind become a central topic in philosophy. Just like in many other instances, the field of psychology was spun-off from philosophy of mind and become an independent field. Dualism was inherited in psychology which then led to a counter-movement called behaviorism, which established the fundamental principles of experimental research within psychology. While subsequently behaviorism become discredited as a psychological theory, their contribution to the development of experimental research in psychology remains. Dualism still thrived within philosophy of mind as well as within psychology and that prompted non-dualists to begin experimenting with computer models of the mind: i.e., AI. And so on.

    So, in conclusion and contrary to the assertion that dualism hinders research, an unbiased review of the history of the field conclusively demonstrates exactly the opposite conclusion.

    (4). Dualism “must go through acrobatic contortions to account for the obvious causal coupling between the physical state of the brain and subjective experience.”
    But then again so does any other theory, including the ones which rely upon theory of evolution, AI models etc., and the “acrobatic contortions” of the later are far more fiction-laden than dualism. No one as yet succeeded to go beyond rough correlations between physical state of the brain, on the one hand, and mental phenomena, on the other. But research in brain-science etc., gradually identifies further correlations and deeper explanations which challenge dualists to look seriously at the possibility that the mental is at least an emergent property of the physical. However, at this stage we are very far from the need for such a concession and dualists are invited to go on and challenge naturalists to keep working hard (see my previous post on this matter).

    (5). “that there is no good reason whatsoever to take it seriously at all”;
    And what is the argument for this statement?

    I have tried to articulate in a previous post why naturalism is a philosophical, not a scientific, theory. I have also said that the philosophical doctrine of naturalism is required to explain, or reduce, or eliminate, a host of non-naturalistic concepts, normativity being just one of them. I have also explained why it is very unlikely that naturalists will be able to reduce or eliminate all of them simultaneously and that this fact is the most serious challenge to the philosophical doctrine of naturalism. I have yet to see a serious response to this argument.


    Posted July 16, 2008 at 4:14 pm | Permalink
  85. Malcolm says

    Thanks for rejoining us, Peter, with another formidable salvo.

    I’ll have to digest your response for a bit; I will reply later.

    Posted July 16, 2008 at 4:27 pm | Permalink
  86. Malcolm says

    Hi Peter,

    After wrapping up the work-day and enjoying an early-evening visit to my periodontist (the gifted healer Louis Franzetti), I now have some time to reflect.

    I should start off by pointing out that I of course do not imagine that I am in possession of an argument to refute dualism. There is no practical limit to the number of worldviews that are in principle consistent with the “phaneron” we observe, and to settle things once and for all in favor of the particular view I favor, after all these centuries of acrimonious dispute, would be something quite remarkable indeed. All of the views we are disputing here can (so far) be reasonably held, and we are drawn to this or that one, I think, by our differing, inveterate inclinations.

    Regarding your objections:

    1) I agree that at the lowest level causality is still an area of active inquiry in physics, although I think you overstate the case. Physics does after all describe various forces, fields, interactions, rules for energy transfer, transduction, and conservation, and so on, all of which are relevant to any examination of causality. And I don’t think any of us is really willing, here, to abandon causality — after all, everything we do assumes that our notions of causality in fact apply with inviolate regularity. If I were swinging a bat at your Ming vase, you’d probably ask me to desist, on the belief that I was about to cause it to break.

    The principal problem has to do not with causal relations between physical objects, or even, as you suggest, between mental items (if indeed there are such things), but with the idea that the non-physical can causally interact with the physical. If one were to suggest that one could lift an office building by non-physical means there would clearly be major issues of causal closure and conservation violations, and I don’t see why positing any causal influence across this ontological divide should be any different. Information theory tells us that any transfer of information carries an energy cost in the physical world. Any dualistic model has to solve these problems.

    2) I used the term “naive” because I think that dualism, along with most religion, is a holdover from an earlier, prescientific era, in which we flattered ourselves that we are God’s favorites: constructed in his image, and the apex of His creation. The kind of objection I meant to convey with that comment is not a rigorous, philosophical one, but is merely an expression of my own disposition. Those do slip out from time to time.

    I do not see how dualism “explains” how or why each person has his own subjective consciousness; indeed I think it quickly runs into trouble when it tries to explain why my subjectivity is so tightly bound to my body, rather than someone else’s, why tickling my neurons makes me hallucinate, etc., etc. (For that matter, dualism offers no explanation as to why tickling neurons should make anyone hallucinate.) Likewise, the concepts of agent-causation and radically “free” choice are no more coherent under dualism than materialism, as the relation between succeeding intentional states receives no explanatory boost from immateriality. Dualism also does not “explain” intentionality; there is nothing in the denial of materialism that suddenly makes intentionality work. It simply lays claim to it on the grounds that we cannot yet imagine how matter can have intentional states. But that isn’t an explanation.

    3) “God of the Gaps” refers to our tendency to invoke supernatural explanations for those phenomena which we have difficulty modeling with a suitable physical theory. The physical sciences have relentlessly encroached upon these gaps, and the process has been one of steady attrition.

    I appreciate Descartes’ vital contribution at the genesis of systematic inquiry into the nature of mind, but I must point out that all the examples you give are of dualistic theories being so unpromising for further progress, and such an irritant to others, that they have again and again provoked further inquiry along naturalistic lines. At present there are thousands of research programs underway that daily uncover something previously unknown about the linkage between brain physiology and subjective experience. Is there anything similar afoot to flesh out the dualistic model? Is anyone about to offer new dualistic insights about why, say, antidepressants affect the mind the way they do, or how memory works?

    4) The naturalists will “keep working hard” whether the dualists challenge them or not, and progress is accelerating. Meanwhile, what have the dualists discovered lately?

    5) I offer this statement without argument; the reason I say there is no good reason to take dualism seriously is that I have yet to hear one that I find compelling.

    I acknowledge that naturalism is a philosophical, not a scientific, position; however, to the extent that phenomena have effects in the physical world they become part of the purview of science.

    You are, I think, begging the question by insisting that the referents of such commonsense terms as normativity, belief, and so on are non-naturalistic: that, it seems to me, is exactly the matter in dispute.

    On a causal/historical account of reference, for example, we might learn to refer to “water” by being shown water, and we then identify other examples either by explicit additional reference, or by seeking to identify essential features that are common to all instances of “water”: feeling wet, being clear, boiling at a certain temperature, etc. Additional research might lead us to the discovery that what we’ve been calling “water” is in fact H20, and then we can say that something is “water” iff it is H20. But it is only by doing the scientific research that we can make that latter claim; if we had decided up front that the liquid we were calling “water” was H2SO4, we’d simply have been wrong. Likewise, I think there is a good chance — certainly I have no evidence to the contrary — that when you say that the referents of these commonsense intentional terms have, among their essential features, both ontological reality and not being part of the natural world, you are simply wrong. At any rate, I think you can’t just go ahead and help yourself to them as being uncontroversially non-naturalistic.

    Posted July 16, 2008 at 11:02 pm | Permalink
  87. bob koepp says

    It appears to me that what started out as a critical discussion of Dennett’s account of how to build toward interests of the sort at issue in discussions of what sort of meaning might be attributed to life/existence has shifted focus in an unhelpful way. Criticisms of naturalistic accounts of interests are answered with criticisms of dualism. What’s the point?

    Posted July 17, 2008 at 12:25 pm | Permalink
  88. Malcolm says

    You’re right about that, Bob, and this is what usually seems to happen. Dennett’s evolutionary account presents a naturalistic solution to the regress problem described in Bill’s original post, but leads to a dispute over whether the key concepts under examination, such as meaning, are naturalizable at all. It really may be that there is simply not enough common ground here for a productive discussion.

    Posted July 17, 2008 at 12:52 pm | Permalink
  89. peter says

    1) Let me start from the end. You argue:

    “You are, I think, begging the question by insisting that the referents of such commonsense terms as normativity, belief, and so on are non-naturalistic: that, it seems to me, is exactly the matter in dispute.”

    I do not beg the question at all. Here is how to think about this. The items or properties designated by the “contested-terms” such as truth, reference, meaning, intentionality (so-called propositional-attitudes such as belief, desire, etc), consciousness, rationality, warranted-evidence, normativity, necessity, etc., feature certain attributes. E.g.,

    (i) If two expressions have the same meaning, then they have the same referent, if any; and there is a proposition featuring both expressions that is analytic, a-priori, and necessary; if two sentences have the same meaning, then they have the same truth-value;
    (ii) A proposition may be true without anyone believing it.
    (iii) The truth of a sentence, proposition, etc., is in part a function of the meaning of the constituents of the sentence, propositions etc., and the way they are combined.
    (iv) If one has a certain belief, then this belief is either true or false.
    (iv) To have a toothache is to feel a toothache.
    (v) It is not rational to knowingly believe something that is necessarily false. Therefore, it is not rational to knowingly believe a proposition and its negation because the conjunction of such propositions is necessarily false. (NOTE: I am ignoring for now para-consistent logics).
    (vi) One ought to believe what is rational if they know that it is and it is rational to believe a proposition that is shown to have overwhelming evidence and no counter-evidence.
    (vii) If one ought to do something, then one can do it (Kant’s principle); one ought to do what is right, provided they know that it is right.
    (viii) If a proposition is necessary, then it is true in every possible way the world could be; logical and mathematical truths are necessary.

    Now, the above list is designed to show that the contested-terms feature certain properties and they are interrelated. If you wish to reduce, eliminate, or whatever one of them, then you must face them all; moreover, you then need to prove either that your reductive efforts capture these properties or that they need not be captured. Both of these tasks are formidable. A naturalistic approach cannot simply ignore these challenges because then they simply change the subject. You are entitled to talk about “adaptive dispositions” etc., but if you wish this talk to address the questions at hand, then you must link talk of adaptive dispositions to the phenomena under considerations. And the phenomena under consideration are the ones I have listed above and more.

    2) You give the example of water/H2O and argue that empirical investigation showed that water is H2O; therefore, you argue, water could not be any other substance than H20. The same holds, you argue, regarding the contested-terms listed above:

    “Likewise, I think there is a good chance — certainly I have no evidence to the contrary — that when you say that the referents of these commonsense intentional terms have, among their essential features, both ontological reality and not being part of the natural world, you are simply wrong.”
    Let us see how this argument from parity of reasoning works. Your argument about water must be stated as follows:

    (i) if ‘water’ and ‘H2O are rigid-designators then the following holds:
    (P) If the sentence “water=H2O” is true, then it is necessarily true.
    (ii) Empirical research shows that the sentence “water=H2O” is true.
    (iii) “water=H2O” is necessarily true: i.e., water could not be any other substance than H2O.

    By parity of reasoning the following holds for the contested-terms (I shall use the term ‘contested-terms’ as a place holder for any one of the terms on the list):

    (i)* If ‘contested-term’ and ‘adaptive dispositions’ are rigid-designators, then the following holds:
    (P)* If the sentence “contested-term=adaptive-disposition” is true, then it is necessarily true.
    (ii)* Empirical research shows that the sentence “contested-term=adaptive-disposition” is true.
    (iii)* The sentence “contested-term=adaptive-disposition” is necessarily true; the referent of the contested-term cannot be anything but an adaptive disposition.

    Now, here is the problem with the (*) argument. First, you need to show that (i)* is true: namely, that contested-terms as well as the term ‘adaptive dispositions’ are rigid (i.e., refer to the same thing in all possible world, if the thing exists). Second, you need to show that (ii)* is true. You have not shown either one of these things. Not having “contrary evidence” is not enough for your argument: you need positive evidence that (ii)* is indeed true. Hence, the conclusion you draw is not justified.
    I shall address the later points in your post later.

    Posted July 18, 2008 at 10:11 am | Permalink
  90. Malcolm says

    Thanks again, Peter; I shall mull this over too. Each of your postings here is an exemplar of professional clarity and rigor.

    I will say this right off the bat, however: you still seem to be treating my remarks as though I am announcing a knockout victory for naturalism, despite my explicit disclaimer above. All that I am arguing for here is a claim that the question is very much an open one, and that the naturalistic model that Dennett and others defend as an alternative to Bill’s infinite-regress is a live option.

    I quite agree that, as you say about the concepts at issue:

    If you wish to reduce, eliminate, or whatever one of them, then you must face them all; moreover, you then need to prove either that your reductive efforts capture these properties or that they need not be captured.

    This is an ongoing effort, about whose prospects I am optimistic. I am well aware that optimism for the future of the naturalistic project does not constitute proof now of its success — but then, as noted above, I have made no such claim; I merely assert that there is another defensible model on offer than the dualistic one assumed in Bill’s original post, and one that has a lot to recommend it.

    Likewise for your response to my remarks about water and H20; if you look back at them my point was not that you are demonstrably (so far, at least) wrong to believe that “the referents of these commonsense intentional terms have, among their essential features, both ontological reality and not being part of the natural world”, but rather that you may be wrong; in other words, that the matter is certainly not settled in favor of non-naturalistic accounts. As you say, there are gaps that must be filled in by empirical study before a naturalistic model of intentionality will be acceptable to all; I admit there are promissory notes outstanding. On the other hand, I don’t see any reason to accept non-naturalistic models as the default account, either, especially in light of the formidable objections that can be made against them. As I said above, neither camp can claim victory at present, so we “are drawn to this or that one, I think, by our differing, inveterate inclinations.”

    Posted July 18, 2008 at 11:43 am | Permalink
  91. peter says


    Thanks for your kind words.

    1). I am not treating your remarks “as though [you are] announcing a knockout victory for naturalism”. My remarks are intended to state the nature of the task facing the naturalistic program. The purpose then is to present certain conditions that from a philosophical point of view naturalists must satisfy in order to fulfill their goal. And I have tried to include as many strategies as possible on behalf of naturalists, reduction, elimination, or even denying the need for either, so that the constraints are not stated in too rigid a form. Each of these strategies is subject to certain argumentative constraints and these must be stated explicitly and observed otherwise debates become hopelessly irrelevant. So I certainly accept that the naturalistic program is still a live option provided it proceeds according to the parameters described above.
    (Reminder: I remind everyone that naturalism is a philosophical thesis. Scientific research in the field of brain science, theory of evolution, or what have you is a totally different matter and is subject to different constraints. The constraints I am dealing with here pertain to the project of appropriating the results of these sciences as evidence to support the philosophical thesis of naturalism. It is this move that must be subject to the constraints herein discussed.)

    2) As for the claim that “the naturalistic model that Dennett and others defend as an alternative to Bill’s infinite-regress is a live option.” The argument you offered against Bill’s infinite regress argument against a subjectivist account of the meaning of life has the form of an analogy or parity of reasoning. It goes something like this:

    (a) If Bill’s infinite regress argument about meaning is correct, then the mammal infinite regress argument is correct.
    (b) The mammal infinite regress argument is not correct.
    (c) Bill’s infinite regress argument about meaning is incorrect.

    I challenged premise (a) on the grounds that the term ‘meaning’ and the term ‘mammal’ do not belong to the same category. Therefore, what may be correct for one may not be correct for the other. Your response was in the spirit that my defense just stated presupposes that naturalism is false: i.e., that the concept of meaning is non-naturalistic. But that was not what I have argued. I have argued that in order for the mammal-argument to work you must first show that meaning can have a naturalistic basis. And this you have not shown. So without such a proof the challenge to premise (a) stands. In short, your argument assumes that the term ‘meaning’ can be given a naturalistic account. But in order for the argument to be sound you must offer a proof that this is the case. Without such a proof, premise (a) is not established (it may still be true: hence, the argument is a “live option” but not a conclusive proof) and, therefore, the argument cannot be at this point viewed as sound.
    Now, since the philosophical project of naturalism has not been established, Bill’s argument cannot be defeated by the mammal-example alone.

    3). I agree that neither camp can claim victory. And this may be a good opportunity to state my own philosophical moto:

    “It is not the destination; it is the journey!” (said by those who love riding motorcycles).

    I see doing philosophy in the same light. My aim is not winning; my principal motivation of doing philosophy is the investigation itself. It is the pleasure, the light, the beauty, and the unveiling of wonderful hidden terrain that it provides that attracts me. I do have beliefs; even philosophical ones. And I occasionally defend them, even with some fervor. But I always try to remember (not always very successfully, I might add) that defending these philosophical beliefs is a means toward another end. And when I succeed to be guided by this principle, I usually win, even if I find myself on the short side of this or that argumentative stick.

    P.S. This is what you wrote:
    “Likewise, I think there is a good chance — certainly I have no evidence to the contrary — that when you say that the referents of these commonsense intentional terms have, among their essential features, both ontological reality and not being part of the natural world, you are simply wrong.”

    You have omitted here the word ‘may’; but, then, again you may have thought that the initial qualification ‘I think there is a good chance’ is equivalent. It is not. You are in effect saying that there is a reasonably high probability (and no evidence to the contrary) that it is wrong to claim that the referents of intentional terms exist but not as part of the natural world. Hence, you are saying that from an epistemic point of view it is rational to hold that the referents of intentional terms are part of the natural world and it is not rational to hold the contrary.

    P.S.S. Note how these contested-terms (in this case the term ‘rational’) sneak in your very claims in favor of naturalism. This is the phenomenon I have been trying to impress upon you in some of my posts.


    Posted July 19, 2008 at 10:26 am | Permalink
  92. Malcolm says

    Hi Peter,

    I’m glad you’ve been willing to continue this discussion as long as you have; so often these threads peter out in frustration with both parties talking past one another. Indeed I think we too have been talking past one another a bit here, but the only way to get beyond that is hang in there and strive for clarity and understanding, which I am eager to do.

    Referring to your points just above:

    1) I think it might be useful and would help our discussion along, to ask: what, indeed, do we imagine is the goal of the naturalistic program? I can imagine at least three:

        i) it might be to establish that naturalism is a plausible, coherent, and defensible philosophical position;

       ii) a far more ambitious aim would be to establish confidently that naturalism is in fact the correct metaphysical position;

       iii) very different in tone would be aiming to establish a body of theory that so persuasively and exhaustively accounts for the phenomena we observe that supernatural explanations are no longer called for, that, in Laplace’s words, we come to “have no need of that hypothesis”.

    It has indeed seemed to me that you were in places pointing out that I had failed to accomplish (ii), and reminding me of the obstacles that I would have to overcome to do so. But I have no confidence that (ii) is achievable; what I have been doing here is to argue in support of (i), and to express optimism for (iii). I also think that the empirical progress in (iii) helps to support (i).

    Progress toward (i) and (iii) will indeed require some appropriate combination of reduction, elimination, or denial of the need for either, just as you say, and what applies where is a matter of much ongoing debate.

    I care rather a lot about (i), hardly at all about (ii), which I see as hopeless, and most of all about (iii).

    2) Fair enough. I agree with your analysis: in order for the Prime Mammal argument actually to refute Bill’s infinite-regress objection to subjective meaning, I must establish that the analogy is valid; that the term “meaning” refers to something that can come into being gradually and naturalistically, as mammals have.

    Even if I have failed to do this, though, I think the same sort of objection can be leveled at Bill’s argument, which assumes as its first premise that meaning can only be imparted by a prior bearer of meaning — i.e., that meaning cannot be an naturalistically emergent property. (You in fact pointed this out yourself.) Anyway, it was never my aim to refute Bill’s argument — for all I know he may be right — but rather to point out that there was another way things might be, and that because of this his argument was not secure until he could demonstrate that the naturalistic, emergent account was off the table.

    Finally, are we confident that referents of the terms “mammal” and “meaning” are as unlike as you say? “Mammal” and “reptile” pick out different aspects of the natural world; reptiles have scales, etc. “Predator” and “prey” also pick out different parts of the natural world, in a somewhat different way. “Meaner” and “meaning” may also, it could be argued, pick out something similar, and no less natural, than “predator” and “prey”, referring ultimately to physical acts of living things.

    3) Nicely said. Thank you.

    Moving on, I’m happy to clarify what I said earlier. Indeed, I wish I had said something like: “Likewise, I think it is clearly possible — certainly I have no evidence to the contrary — that when you say that the referents of these commonsense intentional terms have, among their essential features, both ontological reality and not being part of the natural world, you may simply be wrong.”

    Lastly, your P.P.S:

    Note how these contested-terms (in this case the term ‘rational’) sneak in your very claims in favor of naturalism. This is the phenomenon I have been trying to impress upon you in some of my posts.

    I am duly impressed. It is hard, if not impossible — certainly for an amateur like me — to make a classical conceptual analysis of intentionality and related notions, one that manages to define everything in entirely non-intentional terms. However, my failure to find such language to discuss these concepts does not mean, of course, that they are intrinsically non-naturalistic.

    Posted July 19, 2008 at 4:10 pm | Permalink
  93. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – I’m still wondering whether you think I’ve disputed “whether the key concepts under examination, such as meaning, are naturalizable at all.” I thought I was arguing that affirmations by Dennett (and you) are premature, and seem to make a leap across a conceptual chasm between functions and norms.

    Posted July 19, 2008 at 6:42 pm | Permalink
  94. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    Well, I’m not sure where you stand on that. I guess your position might be that they might be, but you aren’t convinced yet.

    I don’t see quite the chasm you do, though: a ditch, perhaps, if that. If we think something “ought” to be the case, we find that if we dig down far enough we come to some sort of normative intuition, an inveterate valuation, where “our spade is turned”. I see no reason to think those evaluative dispositions have any supernatural foundation.

    The place where the naturalist program has the most work to do, I think, and has the most “promissory notes” outstanding, is not in accounting for normative intuitions, but the explication of the mechanics of subjective consciousness.

    Posted July 19, 2008 at 10:22 pm | Permalink
  95. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – I agree that explaining consciousness is a challenge for naturalism — because we can’t yet imagine how to make the transition from an objectively construed explanatory base to subjectivity. That’s one conceptual chasm. I think there’s a similar conceptual chasm between the descriptively construed explanatory base which naturalists can allow themselves and normativity. In both cases, the problem might be simply a failure of imagination. But until we can at least imagine how the chasm might be crossed, we have no grounds for claiming that it can be done gradually. I think it’s just as likely that subjectivity and/or normativity appear quite suddenly. But that’s not to say their appearance would be supernatural.

    Having no reason to think evaluative dispositions rest on a supernatural foundation is not a reason to think they have a natural foundation. Having reason to think they could not rest on a supernatural foundation is a reason to think they have a natural foundation (if they have any foundation at all…). I think the lengthy discussion above is marred by the failure to keep these logical differences clearly in mind.

    Posted July 19, 2008 at 11:37 pm | Permalink
  96. Malcolm says

    Bob, you are quite right that having no reason to think evaluative dispositions rest on a supernatural foundation is certainly not a reason to think they have a natural foundation, on its own. (I don’t think that I have failed to keep that point in mind here, either, by the way.)

    But having no evidence for a supernatural account, when taken together with the philosophical difficulties of such accounts, together with the evidence for a gradual increase of complexity in life’s evolution, together with the existence of intermediate examples of intentionality of a less-mental, more-mechanical sort in lower organisms, together with an increasingly compelling theoretical framework for how morals, etc., can have evolved, begins to add up to a strong circumstantial case.

    And as I said above, I still don’t see what it is about evolving toward normativity that you see as presenting such a chasm. Our deepest and most common “oughts” — the ones that impel us toward acts of sympathy, community, patriotism, religious faith, and so on — are already being taken up quite persuasively in the naturalistic work of folks like Marc Hauser and David Sloan Wilson. You say that “until we can at least imagine how the chasm might be crossed, we have no grounds for claiming that it can be done gradually.” Researchers like these have not only imagined it, but are doing so in explicit detail.

    Posted July 19, 2008 at 11:53 pm | Permalink
  97. Malcolm says

    PS: also, Bob, one thing that I do think has not been kept in mind enough in this discussion is that on the naturalistic view, there is no need to account for the existence of ontologically real “oughts”. All that needs to be explained is why we might have come to think they exist, and to behave as if they do.

    Posted July 20, 2008 at 12:25 am | Permalink
  98. peter says

    1). Ice-Cream Case:
    I like chocolate ice cream; you don’t, you like vanilla instead.
    Do we disagree on anything?
    No! The clear answer is that we do not. We simply have different tastes in ice cream.
    But, one might now ask: why do we come to have different tastes in ice cream?
    Such an inquiry focuses upon a causal explanation of the difference in our ice cream tastes. Perhaps, some day the folks in taste-science will explain such differences: right now we do not know.
    Case closed!
    2. Earth Case
    A thinks that the Earth is round; B thinks it is flat.
    Do A and B disagree? They certainly do disagree about an objective fact of the matter. The Earth is either round or it is flat: it cannot be both.
    But, now one might come to ask: Why do A and B come to believe what they do?
    This question pertains to the causal-antecedents of their beliefs. And we may look at their history and perhaps find an answer. There may not be currently a definite answer to every such question. But whether we know the answer or we don’t, we know one thing: A and B disagree. So we can know that they disagree without having an explanation how come they come to have conflicting beliefs. Therefore, our knowledge about the former depends upon facts other than the causal-antecedents of their beliefs. What are these facts? The content of their beliefs. We know that the propositions ‘The Earth is round’ and the proposition ‘The Earth is flat’ are contradictory. Therefore, two people disagree when one believes one of the propositions and the other believes the other.

    3. Torture Case
    A thinks it is wrong to purposefully torture a baby for fun; B thinks it is permissible.
    Do A and B disagree?
    Yes! They certainly do; very much so.
    Can this disagreement be construed as a difference in their respective proclivities about entertainment?
    No! It is not. For if it were, then the matter would have been more like the ice-cream case (case 1) then the Earth case (case 2).
    Can both be right?
    No! They cannot both be right for, just like in the Earth case, the propositions A and B believe are contradictory: they cannot both be true.
    But, now one might ask: Why do A and B come to believe their respective beliefs? Well, one might then pursue an inquiry into their history, upbringing, perhaps even poke into their brain and see whether there may be some physical differences in order to find out the causal-antecedent of their beliefs. Such an inquiry may or may not yield definite answer to the later question. So we may not currently know why A and B come to hold their respective beliefs. But we currently know one thing for sure: we know that A and B disagree even though we do not know why they come to hold contradictory beliefs. Therefore, our knowledge about the later does not depend upon knowledge of the former. How can that be? Well, because we recognize, quite independently from the historical and causal antecedents of A and B’s beliefs, that the pair of propositions “Torturing a baby purposefully for fun is wrong” and “Torturing a baby purposefully for fun is permissible” are contradictory propositions: they cannot both be true.

    Scenarios (1)-(3) is data.
    Case 2 suggests that there is an objective fact of the matter about the shape of the earth. Case 1 suggests that there is no objective fact of the matter about the likability of ice-cream and taste in general.
    Case 3 is similar to case 2 and not similar to case 1.

    What shall we conclude?


    Posted July 20, 2008 at 8:25 am | Permalink
  99. bob koepp says

    Malcolm –
    I don’t think explaining how behavioral dispositions could evolve does explain normativity. Behavioral dispositions cannot be what’s at issue here — at least not if one could (in principle) build a tinker toy device with the complexity necessary to exhibit whatever behavioral dispositions you take as constitutive of normativity. So I don’t accept the claim that researchers are explaining in explicit detail how normativity could have developed gradually (or any other way).

    This, of coruse, is directly related to your disdain for ontologically real “oughts”. But as I’ve said, if naturalism as you conceive it can only issue in a version of the “error theory”, then normativism is not so much explained as explained away. Yet if nihilism is embraced as the “ontologically true story”, why doesn’t that embrace free one from the “illusion” of normativity? Indeed, why doesn’t it free us from the illusion that a naturalistic account of anything could be the “correct” account (since “correctness” is just one more illusory norm)? There are, to be sure, naturalistically inclined thinkers who do accept a sort of fictionalism regarding the theoretical posits of even naturalistic explanations. Dennett, for example, seems to take this line regarding intentionality. I, and many others even within the broad camp of naturalism, find this unsatisfactory as an account of the purported phenomena purportedly being explained.

    In the end, I’m not sure whether our differences are so much ontological as methodological.

    Posted July 20, 2008 at 9:16 am | Permalink
  100. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – I was reviewing recent comments, and think I noted in your PS something that could be a symptom of another difference between our views of the issues.

    You said, “…on the naturalistic view, there is no need to account for the existence of ontologically real “oughts”. All that needs to be explained is why we might have come to think they exist, and to behave as if they do.” Setting aside the merits or not of nihilism, I what you say needs to be explained naturalistically is what I would say can be explained with what I earlier called a descriptively construed explanatory base. This has implications for how we understand what it means to naturalize normativity. To illustrate what I have in mind with the example of ethics, I’ve long been of the opinion that the attempt to construct a selectionist explanation of the content of ethical claims is fundamentally misguided. What this explanatory strategy can reasonably aspire to is to explain why we have developed such theories as are commonly called deontological and consequantialist. That kind of explanation might even help us to understand why we are unable to establish that one or the other is rationally preferable. In contrast, given the explanatory resources presently available to naturalism, I don’t think we can reasonably expect it to produce a positive resolution to disputes between such schools of thought. We can always imagine that new explanatory resources will be developed that fundamentally alter what can be expected from naturalism. Indeed, as I incline toward naturalism myself, that is my hope. But that naturalism doesn’t yet exist.

    Posted July 20, 2008 at 12:45 pm | Permalink
  101. Malcolm says


    Just to make sure that the “intuition pumps” are fully primed, here are two more cases:

    Case 1a. You like vanilla ice cream; I like artificially sweetened bubble-gum ice cream swirled with sterilized vomit and feces.

    Case 1b. You like vanilla ice cream; I like to eat iron filings and crushed glass.

    Can we argue that there is anything more in play here than matters of taste? Well, most of us have strong aversions to vomit and feces, for sound adaptive reasons. And case (1b) goes even further; you might argue that I “ought” not to eat such things, because they could kill me. Would you be right? Why?

    In case (3), you argue that the two propositions about torture cannot both be true, because they are contradictory. Might neither of them be true?

    Case 4. A thinks unicorns have 32 pairs of chromosomes, like horses do, and B thinks they have 23, like the Grevy’s zebra.

    In case (4), like case (3), A and B believe contradictory propositions, which cannot both be true.

    What does it mean for a proposition about moral right and wrong to be “true”?

    In your remarks on (3) you say:

    Can this disagreement be construed as a difference in their respective proclivities about entertainment?
    No! It is not. For if it were, then the matter would have been more like the ice-cream case (case 1) then the Earth case (case 2).

    In response to which I ask: how can you show that it is not? To what will you appeal?

    Here’s where I make a pariah of myself: I think case (3) is like the family of cases in (1).

    Posted July 20, 2008 at 1:05 pm | Permalink
  102. Malcolm says


    We lost part of a sentence there:

    Setting aside the merits or not of nihilism, I [ _ ] what you say needs to be explained naturalistically is what I would say can be explained with what I earlier called a descriptively construed explanatory base.

    I disagree with you that attempts to find adaptive explanations of the content of ethical claims are “fundamentally misguided”; indeed, there appears to be a universal moral architecture common to all humans, for which I think a compelling evolutionary theory is already well under way. Such ethical content as “it is wrong to gratuitously harm another person” is agreed upon by all cultures, it seems, and I think such a common trait falls clearly within the purview of evoutionary science. Were it a universal, obviously physical trait like dentition, there’d be no argument at all; these moral universals likewise appear to be fundamental parts of our shared cognitive architecture, and in fact it appears that those who lack these moral instincts — psychopaths — show consistent structural differences from normal humans in specific areas of the brain.

    Of course there is a lot of specific content that is generated and revised by cultural, historical, philosophical, and memetic processes — as I said earlier, nobody is about to offer a biological history of why we “ought” not to wear white trousers after Labor Day — but I think you are far too dismissive of the work that is already underway as regards the origins of our normative foundation.

    Regarding nihilism, you are completely right that it frees us from any illusions about the ontological reality of moral norms, but it no more frees us from the pull of our moral intuitions and instincts than the knowledge that our love of fat and sugar is an adaptive relic from times when they were scarce and precious frees us from our enjoyment of them, or than the knowledge that the two lines in an optical illusion are actually the same length frees us from seeing them as being different.

    Also, as noted in the original post above, then it isn’t as if we “ought” to abandon our moral norms if nihilism is true — because “if nihilism is true, then nothing matters and we may do whatever we want.” And because of the way I am put together, I don’t want to torture babies; in fact I find the notion abhorrent, and I have no qualms about going after those who feel otherwise. (After all, if nihilism is true, it isn’t as if I “ought” to have any such qualms.)

    Posted July 20, 2008 at 1:34 pm | Permalink
  103. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – The missing word is ‘think’, but you got my meaning in any case.

    The virtually universal architecture of humans includes some behavioral dispositions, which we have reason to believe are adaptations. Why do you call this architecture “moral”? Focussing on the dispositions rather than the architecture, in order for a behavior to have moral significance, it is not sufficient that it be an adaptation, and perhaps not even necessary. This judgment also seems to be virtually universal among humans. What reasons can be given for thinking that the adaptationist stories on offer here even are addressing whatever it is about certain dispositions that inclines people to view them as morally significant?

    The example you give, i.e., ” “it is wrong to gratuitously harm another person”, doesn’t strike me as at all likely to fall under the purview of evolutionary science. What is the scientific rendering of ‘gratuious harm’ in virtue of which it is likely that the common trait you mention was relevant to the history of selection pressures shaping our species? I don’t think it’s being dismissive of scientific work to adopt a critical attitude about what it does and does not deliver. I haven’t dismissed the successful subsumption of a great many adaptive behaviors under the adaptationist umbrella; and if I’ve dismissed claims to have elucidated any foundations of normativity, it’s because they don’t stand up to critical scrutiny — they don’t deliver the goods.

    Posted July 20, 2008 at 2:43 pm | Permalink
  104. Malcolm says

    Bob, you seem to be making ever-finer divisions of the distance to the finish line here, in a manner reminiscent of Zeno’s analysis of Achilles’s chances of beating the tortoise.

    The virtually universal architecture of humans includes some behavioral dispositions, which we have reason to believe are adaptations. Why do you call this architecture “moral”?

    Because we are talking about things like a disposition to treat others well, etc. These are exactly the sorts of things that people have in mind as “moral” guidelines. If these aren’t moral issues, then what are?

    What you appear to be saying is that while you agree that we may be innately disposed — and adaptively so — toward certain types of behavior that are universally regarded as having an ethical dimension, and that you agree also that we feel we “ought” to engage in those behaviors, you are reluctant to imagine that these innate dispositions could express themselves as intuitive moral norms.

    If someone were to present a coherent evolutionary account of why inflicting gratuitous harm on others might be maladaptive for human groups, would that soften your opposition?

    Posted July 20, 2008 at 3:01 pm | Permalink
  105. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – “Ever finer divisions”? I’ve been about as clear as one possibly can be that its the difference between descriptive and normative discourses that needs to be addressed. I haven’t said that the behaviors we think of as moral don’t involve moral issues. Where did you get that notion? What I have said is that an adaptationist acount of the origin of those behaviors doesn’t illuminate whatever it is about them in virtue of which we view them as moral. I hope you appreciate the difference. If you will tell me what it means for an innate disposition to express itself as an intuitive moral norm, perhaps I’ll be able to tell you my view of the matter.

    I think you misunderstood the point of my question about ‘gratuitous harm.’ This is a normative notion, par excellence. It needs to be translated into a non-normative idiom before it can play any role in a selectionist story. If the adaptationist version of naturalized norms needs to employ untranslated normative terms, it fails to deliver.

    Posted July 20, 2008 at 3:43 pm | Permalink
  106. Malcolm says


    Do forgive me if I seem not to understand you correctly. It is not deliberate obtuseness on my part; I really want to get to the root of our lingering disagreement.

    What I mean for an innate disposition to express itself as an intuitive moral norm is exactly what one might think: when people are asked to explain such dispositions for or against a particular sort of behavior, they answer in moral terms. So when asked “would it be wrong to walk up to a complete stranger and punch him in the face?“, most people will say yes, that would be morally wrong. That’s an example of “gratuitous” harm.

    So why are these sorts of innate aversions freighted with moral significance, but not such things as innate aversion to various sorts of foods? Is this the “chasm” you are talking about?

    Posted July 20, 2008 at 4:04 pm | Permalink
  107. Malcolm says

    By the way, Bob, I want also to say that I appreciate your going the distance here. I’m grateful to have such thoughtful commenters.

    Posted July 20, 2008 at 4:12 pm | Permalink
  108. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – I’m afraid that in the context of an inquiry into the nature of morality I don’t think the fact that most of us would say punching a stranger is morally wrong adds to our understanding of what it means for an action to be morally wrong. Similarly, I don’t think the fact that we have various likes and dislikes, some of them accompanied by very strong feelings of approval or diasapproval, and some of them seemingly hard-wired, adds to our understanding of normativity. This is certainly related to the fact that only some innate aversions (and predilections) are, as you say, freighted with moral significance. Presumably, an account of normativity will have to illuminate such differences. But that’s not the “chasm” about which I’ve been pestering you. The chasm I think naturalism must find a way to cross is the “familiar” distinction between facts and values, descriptions and prescriptions, is and ought. “Collapsing” the distinction so that the chasm disappears is not what I think is needed, and it’s not what people like Dennett claim to be doing.

    Posted July 20, 2008 at 6:48 pm | Permalink
  109. Malcolm says

    Well, Bob, I have to say you are losing me here. I think that if we want to understand what it means for something to be morally wrong, the only data we can examine are examples of what people actually do describe as being morally wrong. You appear to be holding out for some understanding of normativity beyond the realm of human experience and behavior — but it is only our human experience of moral intuitions that gives us any glimpse of morality at all.

    Aren’t “feelings of approval and disapproval” the only way in which normativity can possibly manifest itself? In my view, that’s all moral norms are.

    And explaining how such normative inclinations can arise in a natural way — how evolution can produce the “oughts’ of highly evolved social animals from from the “is’s” of our natural history, with a long, slow ramp — is exactly what Dennett, Hauser, Wilson, Pinker, et al. are doing.

    Posted July 20, 2008 at 10:26 pm | Permalink
  110. peter says

    1) You ask about your cases 1a and 1b:

    “Can we argue that there is anything more in play here than matters of taste?”

    You then highlight what may be more in play here at least regarding case 1b:
    “And case (1b) goes even further; you might argue that I “ought” not to eat such things, because they could kill me. Would you be right? Why?”

    Your strategy by bringing in cases 1a and particularly 1b is to fill the gap I have emphasized between cases such as 1 and 3 by introducing intermediaries and thus establishing a semi-continuum. It won’t work.

    2) To see why your cases cannot establish a semi-continuum we need to distinguish between at least three uses of terms such as “ought”

    (a) Predictive: we frequently use the term ‘ought’ in a predictive sense such as, for example, when one says ‘It ought to rain today”. Of course, this use of ‘ought’ is not moral and has nothing to do with normativity.

    (b) Instrumental: we also use the term ‘ought’ in cases such as these: “You ought to take your umbrella when you go out because it might rain”. These cases exhibit the following structure:
    (i) There is a high probability that it will rain. (fact)
    (ii) You do not want to get wet. (desire)
    (iii) Using an umbrella typically prevents getting wet. (fact)
    (iv) If you do not take your umbrella, you will get wet. (a conditional statement linking the above facts)
    (v) You “ought” to take your umbrella.

    The ‘ought’ in (v) designates a relationship between a desire (you do not want to get wet) and the way in which it can be achieved, given certain factual conditions (it will probably rain); namely, the act of taking the umbrella. It is a bit of what they call in philosophy “instrumental reasoning”.

    (c) Moral: exemplified by the example 3 I have given, namely, “You ought not to deliberately torture a baby for fun”. Here ‘ought’ is used explicitly in the moral sense and if it is true at all, then it is based upon certain moral principles.

    Now, it is these moral principles that distinguish the moral uses of ‘ought’ from the instrumental reasoning cases, because while the later rely upon desires, goals etc, the moral cases rely upon moral principles. Now, you might attempt to construe the instrumental cases in terms of adaptive dispositions because you might argue that desires and goals etc., emerge from such dispositions. Even here you will have to face the dreaded “normativity” because even the instrumental cases involve reasoning and since reasoning involves normativity, you will need to account for the normative component in reasoning. But at least you will not have to face the moral kind of normativity which introduces a set of principles that are the main obstacle to the reduction of moral oughts to adaptive dispositions.

    3) To conclude: your case 1b indeed involves more than my 1, but not quite what you wanted. It belongs to the species of instrumental reasoning and not moral reasoning. Hence, bringing it into the picture does not help bridge the gap between 1 and 3.

    4) Your second argument is basically to deny that propositions such as “It is wrong to deliberately torture a baby for fun” have a truth-value: they are neither true nor false just like statements about fictional entities (unicorns etc.,) might be said to lack a truth-value. Of course, if such propositions do not have a truth-value then the apparent disagreement I have emphasized in (3) is a massive illusion: there is no real disagreement. Hence, (3) is more like (1) than like (2).

    This is a clear and daring position (it is like Mackie’s error-theory view). It is clear because it confronts the moral-realist head-on by denying the basis on which the moral-realist’s position rests: namely, the intuition that moral statements are either true or false. And it is daring because by so doing it is vulnerable to the worry you yourself expressed when you prefixed your last statement with the words: “Here’s where I make a pariah of myself …”.

    5) The principal questions here are:

    (a) Can such a position be maintained in the face of overwhelming opposing intuitions?
    (b) Can such a position be sensibly maintained while at the same time securing the foundation of our interpersonal relations and the structure of a stable and healthy society?

    I think the answer to these two questions is negative. But these issues take us to a whole new set of topics worth considering. I point them out because I want to emphasize the stakes raised by adopting something like the error-theory. They are simply overwhelming and one needs to assess the cost/benefit ratios when one is tempted to take such a stand.

    Posted July 21, 2008 at 11:12 am | Permalink
  111. Malcolm says


    Work presses this morning, but I want to say that I feel I am finally getting my point across. Indeed it has been my purpose from the beginning (as I have written in previous posts, here and here) to deny that moral statements have an objective truth-value. I think this is the inevitable end-point of the naturalist position — a nettle that evolutionary theorists have been reluctant to grasp, in public at least, for reasons that are, perhaps, understandable. If I am going to plump for naturalism, though, then I think I have be willing to accept this result.

    You write:

    But these issues take us to a whole new set of topics worth considering. I point them out because I want to emphasize the stakes raised by adopting something like the error-theory. They are simply overwhelming and one needs to assess the cost/benefit ratios when one is tempted to take such a stand.

    It is these “new topics worth considering” that I would like to discuss.

    Posted July 21, 2008 at 12:15 pm | Permalink
  112. Malcolm says


    Regarding your point (5) above, I’d say that the answer to a) is yes, because we accept other counterintuitive results that our exploration of the world has placed before us; and as for b), well, I’m not so sure. But there is much to discuss there.

    Posted July 21, 2008 at 12:45 pm | Permalink
  113. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – I think it’s been pretty clear from the beginning of this discussion that you are not worried about naturalism leading to nihilism. I’d be interested to see a thread about the pros and cons of nihilism. Here, I just want to make one point.

    It’s true that so far as public behavior is concerned, nihilists can act in ways that are indistinguishable from moral realists, even the saintly ones. But there’s a difference that matters a lot to some of us. The nihilist cannot adduce reasons for his actions, since he can have no such reasons.

    Posted July 21, 2008 at 1:27 pm | Permalink
  114. Malcolm says

    Well, I think a thread on this topic is indeed in order.

    Can’t a nihilist still carry an umbrella for the reason that he doesn’t want to get wet?

    Posted July 21, 2008 at 7:55 pm | Permalink
  115. bob koepp says

    No, I don’t think he can carry an umbrella for a reason. He can carry it “because x”, but can’t claim that x constitutes any sort of reason — a rationalization, perhaps, but not a reason. But I promise not to press the point if you start a thread with a narrower focus, say on moral nihilism…

    Posted July 21, 2008 at 8:07 pm | Permalink
  116. Malcolm says

    Fair enough: there’s only so much one can do at once.

    It may be a few days before I manage to put together a new post to get the ball rolling — it’s a very busy week, with cross-country travel coming up as well.

    Posted July 21, 2008 at 8:20 pm | Permalink
  117. Addofio says

    Again I have rather lost touch with the thread here, but I thought y’all might be interested in a book I’m reading. I’m only halfway through it, so I don’t yet know exactly what I think about it and therefore can’t exactly recommend it. But it is directly relevant to the topic of the discussion.

    Here’s a quote from the book:

    “What about all the aspects of the universe we hold sacred–agency, meaning, values, purpose, all life, and the planet? We are neither ready to give these up nor willing to consider them mere human illusions. One response is that if the natural world has no room for these things, and yet we are unshakably convinced of their reality, they thye must be outside of nature–supernatural, infused into the universe by God. The schism between religion and science is, therefore, in part, as disagreement over the existence of meaning. If meaning were to be discovered scientifically, the schism might be healed.”

    The author of the book has expertise in mollecular biology and complexity theory. He mounts a full-frontal assault on reductionism, and is attempting to demonstrate through science and math that meaning is an emergent property of complex living systems. I suspect there’s plenty of meat in his arguments to either irritate or tickle the fancy, or both, of all three of you.

    Title: Reinventing the Sacred: A new view of science, reason, and religion

    Author: Stuart A. Kauffman

    Posted July 22, 2008 at 12:19 am | Permalink
  118. bob koepp says

    Addofio – I was hanging around when the Santa Fe Institute was being born, and have been following (at least trying to follow) Kauffman’s development of the idea of self-organization ever since. I’m not sure how successful he’s been in articulating the difference between emergence and reduction, but I do think he’s at least addressing an important issue. I do share his view that naturalism should accommodate normativity rather than eliminate it from our view of “what’s real”.

    Posted July 22, 2008 at 9:24 am | Permalink
  119. Malcolm says

    Hi Addofio,

    Thanks – I’ve long had an interest in Santa-Fe style notions of self-organizing complexity, and I’d have no problem with such an account of many features of living things. In particular, the idea that meaning is an emergent property of complex living systems is pretty much what I’ve been arguing for here.

    The interesting question is what sort of foundation this gives for the content of meaning — a distinction that must be kept in mind when we talk about whether normativity is “real” (and by the way, I have not been arguing that it isn’t).

    Posted July 22, 2008 at 10:21 am | Permalink
  120. peter says


    You write:

    “Indeed it has been my purpose from the beginning (as I have written in previous posts, here and here) to deny that moral statements have an objective truth-value. I think this is the inevitable end-point of the naturalist position — a nettle that evolutionary theorists have been reluctant to grasp, in public at least, for reasons that are, perhaps, understandable.”

    Wonderful! So now we have a clear philosophical position that we all can chew on. I shall consider this position (which you explicitly stated in previous posts) as one of the fundamental or defining theses of your naturalism.
    A thorough discussion of this position will have to explore the consequences of denying objective truth-values to *all* moral propositions (how do you Bold on this site?) without exception. It is imperative to remember that the present position–the truth-valueless view–has a variety of implications.
    One of the most important ones is moral-reasoning. If no moral propositions have truth values, then it is doubtful that the rules of reason apply. For instance, why should one refrain from holding a moral proposition and its negation (i.e., a contradiction)? After all, if neither proposition has a truth-value, then their conjunction fails to have a truth-value also. Consequently, the principal reason to refrain from holding contradictory beliefs: i.e., that their conjunction must be false, no longer applies to the sphere of moral propositions.

    As for my question (a) you say that we can in fact maintain the position that moral propositions have no truth-value despite overwhelming intuitions to the contrary because “we accept other counterintuitive results that our exploration of the world has placed before us;”.
    Indeed, we do.
    And so another task is to compare this case with the other areas where research has overturned prevailing intuitions. Such a comparison will reveal, I believe, that there is a fundamental difference between the cases.

    It is one thing to overturn astronomical belief such as that the earth is flat or that it is in the center of the universe or that position and velocity are absolute and universal properties of objects. It is quite another to maintain that our intuitive conception of a whole subject matter that is deeply entrenched in human history turns out to be so fundamentally misguided. For the later claim entails not merely that this or that moral theory is false; it maintains that the parameters of true/false do not apply to any moral theory at all. So your claim here is a meta-ethical position and a radical one at that.
    It would be like the assertion that no theory about the origin of the species has a truth-value. Since such a claim would render all standard forms of reasoning and evidential considerations about the subject matter irrelevant, preferences among theories of life cannot be guided by such considerations. Imagine the consequences!

    The same holds in the case of morality. Preference among competing theories of morality cannot be guided by our moral intuitions, reasoning, or evidential considerations. A theory that promotes cannibalism, human sacrifice, slavery, racism, genocide, ethnic cleansing, rape, torture, murder, etc., cannot be rejected when compared to a theory that rejects all such practices as immoral on the grounds that the former is false or flies in the face of evidence based upon our moral intuitions.
    You of course might argue that a theory that promotes practices such as cannibalism, etc., is not conducive to adaptability and survival. But, how do you know that? What evidence do you have that a moral theory that promotes human sacrifice, for instance, is less prone to the adaptability of the human species and its survival than a theory which rejects it? The actual history of humanity which rejected human sacrifice cannot be used here as evidence, because the rejection of these practices was based in the end on moral grounds: people gradually came to believe that the practice of human sacrifice is immoral. You are not entitled to appeal to history here because you thereby appeal to considerations which your meta-ethical theory rejects.

    So here is some of the baggage you will have to carry and justify carrying.

    We shall see where this leads.

    Posted July 22, 2008 at 10:25 am | Permalink
  121. Addofio says


    I must admit I’m an easy sell for arguments against reductionism, and so perhaps am insufficiently critical. But insofar as I’ve been able to follow them, his discussions of complex molecular systems, and his discussion of the impact of complexity on the dynamics of systems, have seemed to my untrained eye very careful and at least somewhat convincing. I don’t quite get why he places so much significance on the “multiple platforms” argument, but I do think he makes a convincing case that reductionist explanations must “explain forward”, not just trace causal chains after the fact, to prove the reductionist argument. Simply saying in effect “Since I can trace this back to that, I could in principle explain everything in terms of that” has always seemed to me to be nothing more than hand-waving, asking the rest of us to take way too much on faith.

    Since I’m only halfway through the book, I’m not sure he’s going to pull off his case that he’s “reinventing the sacred”, but still–wouldn’t it be a hoot if it turned out that something human beings recognized as having enough properties of God to merit the name turned out to be a natural emergent property of the Universe, and not supernatural at all? That would flummox people on both sides of the dreat divide :-)

    Posted July 22, 2008 at 10:36 am | Permalink
  122. Malcolm says

    Hi Peter,

    I do think that were cannibalism, for example, strongly conducive to group fitness, we would see nothing immoral about it, and in fact there have been cultures where this is so.

    A theory that promotes cannibalism, human sacrifice, slavery, racism, genocide, ethnic cleansing, rape, torture, murder, etc., cannot be rejected when compared to a theory that rejects all such practices as immoral on the grounds that the former is false or flies in the face of evidence based upon our moral intuitions.

    Well, I agree that we can’t reject such a theory as being objectively false. But this does not mean that we cannot, in practical terms, reject it anyway, because it is morally distasteful to us (after all, who is to say that we can’t?). And that, I argue, is what we in fact do, but to build our confidence we also like to dress our consciences up in the “emperor’s clothes” of objective moral truth.

    Simply looking at the often-contradictory variety of moral systems that men have embraced throughout history, one would have to imagine that one cannot assume objective moral truth simply on the basis of strong moral intuitions. There do seem to be some universals, but the breadth of their variation mitigates against, I think, the notion that there is some underlying truth or falsehood to any of it.

    Of course, one can just say that everyone else has got it all wrong. But if two communities disagree about some moral “fact”, to what absolute reference can they appeal to settle the question?

    Posted July 22, 2008 at 12:19 pm | Permalink
  123. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – A matter of method…
    Suppose our inability to appeal to an absolute reference to settle moral questions poses a serious problem for morality. Why is this different from our inability to appeal to an absolute reference to settle questions about physical “reality”?

    Posted July 22, 2008 at 12:29 pm | Permalink
  124. Malcolm says

    I’m not sure that it is different, Bob. My point here is only to argue that there may be no such absolute reference frame.

    On the other hand, in the physical sciences there are perhaps different sorts of ways of settling empirical questions.

    Posted July 22, 2008 at 12:35 pm | Permalink
  125. Malcolm says

    Oh, by the way, Peter – to format text as “bold”, “italic” etc., click the “Show QuickTags” button, highlight the text, and click the appropriate button. You can add hyperlinks this way too.

    Posted July 22, 2008 at 12:37 pm | Permalink
  126. peter says


    I am not sure you appreciate the force of the points I have made in my last post. So let me try again:

    1)You say: “I do think that were cannibalism, for example, strongly conducive to group fitness, we would see nothing immoral about it, and in fact there have been cultures where this is so.”

    It is of course a historical fact that such cultures existed. And let us suppose we should find out that cannibalism was “conducive to group fitness”. I would find it hard to believe that *we* would see “nothing immoral about it”. I wonder where do you get the evidence to render such a conclusion?

    2) Referring to theories that promote cannibalism, human sacrifice, etc,. you say:
    “I agree that we can’t reject such a theory as being objectively false. But this does not mean that we cannot, in practical terms, reject it anyway, because it is morally distasteful to us (after all, who is to say that we can’t?).”
    But what exactly do you mean by “morally distasteful”? If it is like the chocolate/vanilla ice-cream case, then our moral-distaste of such theories does not have the character that the rejection of such theories demands. For example, rejecting such theories does not imply merely a personal reference. It has the force to the effect that any rational moral agent must reject such theories if they are to maintain their moral agency.
    There is overwhelming evidence against the view that our rejection of such theories is merely a matter of taste. It is not merely a matter of viewing them with a distaste like for instance someone who eats in public with their hands, etc. It is a matter of the manner we conceive of ourselves and of humanity.

    And what will you say to a group of people who promote the view that our taste in matters of human sacrifice needs to be changed, just like our taste in food ought to be. And so they begin promoting such practices and gradually gain ground. According to your “morally distasteful” theory, those who promote such a theory are in just as good a standing as those who wish to change our taste in food in order to promote their food preferences (e.g., promote the liking of Chinese food). And just like in the later case, one has no reason to resist them because, who knows, perhaps my tastes about human-sacrifice might indeed change; how do I know it won’t?

    There is much more to be said, but for now this should suffice. Of course, we will have to explore the ramifications of your view on (b) above: how such views impact the manner we organize society.


    Posted July 22, 2008 at 12:50 pm | Permalink
  127. Malcolm says

    Peter, I didn’t make myself clear there.

    What I meant in the remark cited in 1) above was that if cannibalism had been an important part of our own group fitness (or whatever evolutionary/historical antecedents lead to the formation of moral intuitions), then we would see nothing immoral about it, as I assume the cannibals don’t. This is almost a tautological consequence of the position I’m defending, so I admit it doesn’t add much to the discussion. I’m sorry I wasn’t clearer.

    Ad 2), I agree that we react differently to differences of taste than to differences of moral outlook. One we don’t care much about, and the other we care very much about indeed. I would argue that the latter are imbued with far deeper significance because they are essential for the cohesion of groups.

    I am of course well aware of the implications of this view as regards your penultimate paragraph, and indeed on this view what you say is quite right: in purely rational terms we would have to admit that our own moral system can make no deeper claim to truth than an outsider’s. This of course could expose our own group to all manner of corrosive influences, undermining the cohesive value of a particular moral system for the group that relies on it, and indeed, this is a good adaptive argument for why we naturally imagine our moral intuitions to be far more deeply rooted in ontological reality than they really are. It protects them — and by extension, it protects the stability of the group that is bound together by them. I think the same is true for religion.

    Again, none of this means that there is any reason why we have to reject our own moral systems (insofar as we even can), any more than we have to stop liking the foods we do, or enjoying sex. To the people you describe who want us to become cannibals, there’s no reason we can’t simply sic the dogs on them.

    I quite agree that this view may not be “ready for prime time”; it seems to be the Dread Secret of naturalism. I realize also that even espousing such a view might quite naturally cause one to become rather unwelcome.

    Posted July 22, 2008 at 1:15 pm | Permalink
  128. Addofio says

    Seems to me that both positions–natural emergence of morality as a result of evolution, and morality having some kind of objective, absolute basis–founder on the issue of what to do when we differ deeply about moral judgements that matter a lot to us, and that result in different actions in situations which require some kind of action or decision. It might appear that the existence of objective, absolute moral precepts would have an advantage here–except we don’t agree on what that objective, absollute basis might be. It’s only in these cases of deeply held disagreements that the debate even matters, practically speaking–and neither side seems to have much to offer in precisely those cases.

    Posted July 22, 2008 at 3:40 pm | Permalink
  129. peter says


    A. Let me sum up your position as it stands now.

    (1) You maintain that moral propositions, statements, judgments do not have a truth-value because there is no objective realm of facts to which they could correspond.
    (2) You maintain that moral intuitions are to be discarded in the context of this discussion whenever they conflict with your naturalistic account.
    (3) There are no moral disagreements; there are only differences in taste.
    (4) What we construe as moral propositions, statements, and judgments are in fact nothing but, and emerge from, adaptive dispositions.

    B. I will now raise some objections about your meta-ethical views expressed in (1)-(4):

    Claim: You have changed the subject and no longer engage in a discussion about morality. It is not even clear what subject matter you are addressing. Here are some of the considerations which support this claim:
    (a) In order for a theory to be assessed as an adequate or inadequate account of a given subject matter it must first be deemed as a theory about the subject matter in question. So before we can judge whether your meta-ethical account is adequate or not we must first determine whether it is indeed a theory about the subject matter of “morality”. Well, is it?

    Let us see:
    (a1) You argue that moral-propositions do not have a truth value because there is no objective domain to which they correspond. Therefore, according to your meta-ethical theory there is no distinctive subject matter of morality at all.
    (a2) You argue that moral-intuition cannot serve as evidence in favor of one or another meta-ethical theory. Hence, one important source of evidence specific to this subject matter is totally irrelevant. But you offer no alternative theory of evidence that can adjudicate between different accounts of this subject matter.
    (a3) You argue that despite all appearances to the contrary what is viewed as moral disagreements are nothing but differences in matters of taste. By construing moral disagreements as matters of taste you in fact deny that moral attitudes, such as beliefs about moral matters, have a cognitive content (or meaning) at all. In other words, what we normally view as conflicting moral beliefs with contradictory content (matters that belong to the cognitive domain), you construe as completely different phenomena; these are not beliefs at all, they are instead preferences based on non-rational dispositions such as taste, etc.
    (b) Thus, your meta-ethical theory has no subject matter of its own. The source of evidence in favor or against a given theory cannot be moral in character; so moral theories have no evidence of their own. And, finally, propositions that appear to have a distinctively moral content in fact lack any content whatsoever.
    (c) Therefore, your so-called “meta-ethical” theory is not about the subject matter of morality or ethics at all. If we were to simply look at the theory from the inside, as it were, we could not tell that it is about anything having to do with morality. The only reason that your theory has anything to do with morality at all is because you make certain statements about it; namely, that it is an account of what we normally label by the term ‘morality’. But, in the absence of a domain, evidence, and content recognizable as distinctly about morality, such a claim-from-the-outside has absolutely no force. Thus, you have changed the subject and no longer engage in a discussion about morality.

    C. Let me now address your arguments on behalf of claim (1) in A above. You maintain that moral propositions, statements and judgments do not feature a truth value because you cannot see what would constitute an objective realm of facts to which they correspond and which will determine an objective truth-value for such propositions.
    Claim 1: Your argument fails to consider several options that do offer an objective realm to which moral propositions can correspond and which can determine an objective truth-value for them.

    (a) There are at least three different moral theories that offer an objective model that renders moral propositions true or false:
    (a1) Theism: Moral propositions are objectively true by virtue of corresponding to the explicit mandates of Go or to the logical consequences of these; if they conflict with such mandates or their logical consequences, then they are objectively false.
    (a2) Utilitarianism: Moral propositions are objectively true if they follow from the correct principle of utility; otherwise they are false.
    (a3) Deontological (Kantian) Theories: Moral propositions are objectively true if they follow from a version of Kant’s Categorical Imperative; if they conflict with anything that follows from the Categorical Imperative, then they are false.

    (b) (a1)-(a3) are certain meta-ethical theories that offer an objective basis for morality. They construe moral propositions as having a truth-value; as having cognitive content; and as having an evidential basis we can rely upon to adjudicate among alternative moral theories. So all three meta-ethical theories are clearly about the domain we normally identify as morality.
    (c) Each of these meta-ethical theories may be vulnerable to certain objections. But all of them are immune to the objection I have raised about your meta-ethical theory; namely, that your account changed the subject matter of our conversation to such a degree that we no longer recognize in it a theory about what we normally identify as the subject matter of morality. So whether these meta-ethical theories are correct or not, we at least can evaluate their adequacy because we know that they are about the subject matter of morality.

    Claim 2: You do not see that there can be an objective domain for moral discourse because you have a very narrow conception of what constitutes a legitimate domain for any discourse. But your narrow standard of what constitute a legitimate objective domain would exclude fields that we all consider to be legitimate subject matters of inquiry.
    (a) Abstract Sciences: Mathematics (as well as geometry) is considered abstract because its subject matter requires us to posit a domain of objects that are not in space and time (I am now expounding the classical view, which is the most common among mathematicians; there are alternatives such as intuitionism and constructivism (a version of formalism in mathematics)).
    (a1) Mathematical propositions thus have a cognitive meaning because they are about a domain of objects, namely, mathematical structures which include entities such as numbers, sets of numbers, properties of numbers, etc.
    (a2) The evidence in mathematics appeals to proofs and to mathematical intuitions about the relationship between proofs and the truth of mathematical propositions.
    (a3) There are genuine disagreements about mathematical propositions and there is a fact of the matter which side is correct.

    (b) Moral discourse, like mathematical discourse, may feature a very similar structure. Its domain may be an abstract moral structure consisting of moral properties and their relationship to certain types of actions. It is this relationship that determines the truth or falsity of moral propositions. We can glean these relationships by relying upon our moral intuitions and we can appeal to a variety of sources to gather evidence on behalf of one or another moral view. Moral intuitions play a role in both discovering new moral truths as well as by evaluating moral theories with respect to their claims. For instance, if a moral theory claims that lying is wrong without exceptions, then we can evaluate this claim by devising circumstances in which our moral intuitions judge that lying, under such circumstances, is either permissible or morally obligatory.

    (c) Moral discourse appears to have a logical structure of its own which suggests it does feature a cognitive content. For instance, we can define moral obligation in terms of negation and the moral notion of permissibility; we can define moral prohibition in terms of negation and permissibility or in terms of negation and the notion of obligation, etc. Hence, we are able to set up rules of inference that are specific to moral discourse just like in non-moral discourse, or modal discourse, or mathematical discourse.

    Conclusion: The logical, evidential, and other factors stated above suggest that moral discourse features a logical structure and therefore cognitive meaning; that there is a certain kind of evidence that is relevant to moral discourse; that we can devise a model of a subject matter for such discourse. We may even construct a model whereby the relevant portions of human history offer a certain kind of evidence on behalf of certain meta-ethical and moral theories.
    By contrast, your account takes the conversation outside the realm of morality altogether and offers us no reason to think that it has anything to do with morality as such.

    Posted July 23, 2008 at 11:25 am | Permalink
  130. Malcolm says

    Peter, I thank you as usual. I disagree that my position takes the conversation outside the realm of morality; my only claim is that on a naturalistic account, our customary beliefs about morality may not have the objective truth-values we wish them to. But the subject under discussion is still the phenomenon of human morality; I am seeking only to examine how it works, and why it works the way it does.

    You are right to examine what other possible foundations we might have for morality, e.g. theism and utilitarianism; indeed on a naturalistic view one might add another candidate, namely that the sort of moral system we have arrived at is an optimal solution for well-functioning social groups (which seems to be rather on a par with utilitarianism, I think).

    I will have to respond as time permits; work presses on me heavily at the moment, and tomorrow I will be traveling for most of the day. If I can make a preliminary response tonight I will.

    Posted July 23, 2008 at 3:38 pm | Permalink
  131. peter says


    Take your time. I know how difficult it is to reconcile all things pressing.

    Now, perhaps you should reflect upon these comments before you respond extensively.

    You claim that “my only claim is that on a naturalistic account, our customary beliefs about morality may not have the objective truth-values we wish them to. But the subject under discussion is still the phenomenon of human morality;”

    But you also claim that our moral intuitions are irrelevant to assess your account and also that moral propositions do not have a content. When these things are put together with your denial that moral propositions have a truth-value, then it is simply unclear how we determine whether that which you talk about is still what we recognize as moral propositions.
    Here is how to think about this. Suppose someone claims that moral propositions are about the configurations of the stars. Well, such a claim can be assessed because (i) They maintain that moral propositions have a content and a truth-value; and (ii) They do not deny that moral intuitions are relevant in assessing this theory.
    For instance, according to such a view the truth conditions of a propositions such as “Murder is wrong” will be equivalent to a proposition about some star configuration; call this proposition P. Thus, we are going to have

    (1) ‘Murder is wrong’ is true if and only if P

    We now can recall our moral intuition to determine whether (1) is true and of course we will quickly conclude that it is not, and so on.

    On your account, however, we have no way of determining such things. We cannot formulate equivalences such as (1) because according to you a proposition such as ‘Murder is wrong’ has no truth-value; hence, the analog of the right side of (1) will not be well formed at all. Moreover, since moral intuitions are irrelevant, we cannot assess a claim such as the one you made about the morality of cannibalism and group fitness any more than a claim to the effect that cannibalism would have been considered right if and only if it would have been practiced for the purpose of entertainment, for instance.
    How can we assess such competing account if we cannot rely upon our moral intuitions?
    And how do we know that we still are talking about morality rather than baseball or the weather? Since after all, the terms ‘ought’, ‘right’, and their cognates do not have a meaning; the sentences in which they occur do not have truth conditions; and our moral intuitions expressed by their use are irrelevant to any account of what we call ‘morality’.

    This is the challenge I have posed to you. And you cannot dismiss it by simply claiming that you are still talking about the subject matter of morality, because you have removed every distinguishing mark of this subject matter. How do you know that you are talking about morality when you claim lets say that human sacrifice would have been morally permissible if it would have been contributing to group fitness? Your response that it would have been permissible from the point of view of those who engaged in human sacrifice is not to the point. The question before us is a counter-factual situation. If human sacrifice would have been contributing to group fitness, would it then be morally permissible? This question is not about what those who participated in such activities think: of course, they either thought it was permissible or did not care. If we say that human sacrifice would have been immoral even if it contributes to group fitness, then those who think otherwise are wrong, no matter when, who, and where.


    Posted July 23, 2008 at 7:40 pm | Permalink
  132. Malcolm says

    Peter, I will have to take a breath here; it is after ten p.m. and I am still just wrapping up the day’s work; I have to be on a plane first thing tomorrow, for which I still must pack, and so on.

    I must repeat:

    … the subject under discussion is still the phenomenon of human morality; I am seeking only to examine how it works, and why it works the way it does.

    I am not denying that moral propositions have any content; they can still have a content in the same way that propositions about baseball do: by convention. We know we are talking about morality and not baseball because we are not uttering advice about whether to bunt or swing away; we are using all the ordinary-language terms we have always used to talk about morality, and anyone listening would have opinions of their own that they would regard as opinions about morality. The only distinction I am making is that our feeling that moral truths have an ontological reality beyond human opinions of them may be mistaken. I may say that one should try to steal with a man on first and one out when you are more than three runs down; you may say otherwise. There may be no ontological fact of the matter, but we are still plainly talking about baseball, and not morality, and the proposition is still contentful.

    But I will prepare a more thorough response shortly. Thanks as always for sticking with this; it’s a fascinating journey, even if the destination is still far off in the mist.

    Posted July 23, 2008 at 10:27 pm | Permalink