What kind of God do you believe in?

One of the ten commandments is “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”

The ethics of belief is that “it is wrong everywhere, always, and for anyone to believe anything without sufficient evidence.”

If you are to seriously try to obey the commandment not to bear false witness, you must try to adhere to the ethics of belief.  If you believe without sufficient evidence, then you run the risk of believing falsehoods, which means that you run the risk of bearing false witness.

The reason the ethics of belief is true is that, otherwise, we risk believing falsely and thereby run the risk of doing wrong things — doing them unintentionally but doing them nonetheless.

For instance, if you believe that ceremonies instead of ambulances benefit people in car crashes, you endanger the injured instead of helping them, which is wrong.

If God is good, then He wants you to believe only in accordance with the evidence.  You have to do this in order to love your neighbor as yourself.

It is not anti-religious to criticize people for believing stupid things.  It may be anti-bad-religion, but so what?


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In What Universe?

A CBC columnist, Robyn Urback, has taken it upon herself to criticize the Governor-General of Canada, Julie Payette, for supposedly mocking people who deny climate change or evolution.

The title of Urback’s essay is “In what universe is it appropriate for a Governor General to deride people for their beliefs?”

The beliefs that Governor-General Payette questioned are pernicious falsehoods.  They need to be questioned.

Urback declares that the Governor-General has an obligation to be politically neutral.  But whether climate change is occurring is a matter of fact, not an item on a party political platform.

Urback writes:  “… had Payette flippantly dismissed traditional Indigenous healing methods instead of cancer patients taking sugar pills, I doubt she’d be afforded the defences she’s currently enjoying from many observers.”

I suppose that this is true.  But I also suspect that “traditional Indigenous healing methods” are just another example of the placebo effect at work.

Good medicine has a placebo effect; it also works in the absence of the placebo effect and without harmful side-effects that negate its benefits.  Bad medicine works no better that a placebo and sometimes has harmful side-effects.

Physicians have an obligation to recommend and provide good medicine.  If they did not, they would be negligent at best.  Everyone else has an obligation to support physicians in this.

Evolution?  There is a difference between diseases that are spread inter-personally and vector-borne diseases.  The former tend to become less virulent but the latter do not.  Prayer meetings would spread the former but not the latter.  Only evolution and science can tell us which is which.

Climate change?  It is a threat to all humanity, and deniers stand in the way of effective action to ameliorate it.

In what world is it appropriate to indulge the ignorant and the irrational  when they endanger the innocent?

Three cheers for Julie Payette.












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You don’t know yourself

People don’t always know what they believe.

Lots of people think they believe that everyone has a right to believe whatever they want to believe.

They are committed to believing that the police have a right to believe them guilty of a crime they did not commit – and the judge and the jury and the general public.

But they don’t believe that, so they don’t believe that everyone has a right to believe whatever they want.

So, they want to draw a line.  But there is nowhere to draw it which permits anyone to believe something just because they want to.  Wherever they try to draw it, they have to have some version of “Don’t believe unless you show that your belief is either supported by the evidence or is harmless.”  But showing that a belief is harmless means showing that it is harmless when you know you do not have any evidence for it.  When you know that you do not have any evidence for a belief, you can show that it is harmless but you can’t bring yourself to believe it.  So, for all practical purposes, this amounts to “Don’t believe unless you show that your belief is supported by the evidence, full stop.”

In fact, “it is,” as W. K. Clifford declared, “wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything without sufficient evidence.”

And, since that is true, we all have an obligation not to misinform others, so that we do not cause them to believe when they should withhold belief.

“Thou shalt not bear false witness,” no matter whether you are witnessing to others or to yourself.

Clifford warned:

The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things … but that it should become credulous … for then it must sink back into savagery.

This process is already in progress in at least one country.

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The Moral Superiority of the Modern World

We know that different societies have different moral codes.  Is there any reason to think that the moral codes of modern, educated, industrialized societies are better than more traditional ones?

Of course, it is impossible to use moral codes themselves as such reasons.  That would be question-begging.

If the observable variation in moral codes is not a brute fact but can be explained in terms of distorting factors impinging on a shared moral basis, it is possible to imagine that there one code could be subject to fewer distorting factors than another.  Such a code would probably be a better code.

So, we would have reason to think that the code of an “advanced” society could be better if there were fewer distorting factors impinging on it.

Two distorting factors are ignorance and error concerning material facts.  “Advanced” societies know more than “primitive” ones.  They have ways of eliminating mistakes.  Hence, it is likely that their moral codes are better.

If my moral theory is peculiarly modern in declaring that we should neither damage nor destroy others but preserve them damage or destruction, and that all are fundamentally equal, then that fact is in its favour.

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Blanket Strong Agnosticism

Blanket strong agnosticism is the view that it is impossible to know whether or not there are any supernatural beings.

Since it is impossible to observe supernatural beings directly, we can only infer their existence as the best explanation for some observation or other.

The trouble is that none of the explanations are testable.

To be testable means that it is possible to predict observations that the original hypothesis was not designed to explain.  But the only relevant observations with this kind of “argument” are always just the observations that they purportedly explain.

They all amount to a declaration that such and such is the case because there is a supernatural being with the desire and ability to bring it about that such and such is the case.

They could as well “prove” the opposite.  Suppose that such and such were not the case.  You could then “argue” that such and such was not the case because there was a supernatural being with the desire and ability to prevent it from being the case.

Supernatural “explanations” are always vacuous verbal formulas.





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The Irrationality of Rationalists

There are philosophers who maintain that morality is a function of, or reducible to, rationality.

It is impossible that they could be right.  Natural selection would eliminate individuals who were “rational” to the extent that being “rational” differed from believing and doing whatever would tend to maximize their genetic legacy, provided that they could believe or act “irrationally.”  Since believing or acting “irrationally” amounts to being able to do wrong, and since even “rationalists” know that people can do wrong,  the condition is fulfilled.  Therefore, it is impossible for the “rationalists” to be right.

I suspect that the impossibility of their project explains why, amidst their pirouettes of pointless cleverness, it is frequently possible to find elementary fallacies such as equivocation.

I suppose that I really ought to put scare quotes about the word “rationalists” in my title.

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Something We Can Be Sure of

We apply morality in specific situations.

In order to apply it correctly, we must be aware of all the relevant materials facts.

For instance, if morality requires us to engage only in the kind of sexual activity that is most likely to result in procreation, we have to know which kind of sexual activity is most likely to result in procreation.

Knowing all relevant truths is a necessary condition for doing the right thing, no matter which moral theory turns out to be true.  So, is avoiding all relevant falsehoods

It follows that we have a duty to try to ensure that we believe all relevant true propositions, and to disbelieve relevant false ones.

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The Limited Scope of Hume’s Law

I maintain that ethics ought to be a sub-field of evolutionary biology.   My stance may lead people to surmise that I run afoul of the fact/value distinction.

I don’t.

  • There can be natural selection for beliefs. It is a simple matter of whether the beliefs are advantageous.
  • There can be selection for beliefs that are so advantageous that they cannot be eliminated even if it is discovered that they are false.
  • There can be selection for beliefs that involve normative concepts. It is possible for there to be concepts that do not correspond to anything in existence.
  • Thus, I can invincibly believe – in a world in which nothing is actually of value – that another individual is of value, which entails that the individual should be neither damaged nor destroyed but rather preserved from both damage and destruction.
  • Once I believe that another is of value, I become committed not to damage or destroy the other, but to preserve it from damage or destruction. It is logically inconsistent to do otherwise.  It can be biologically disadvantageous to do otherwise as well.
  • At this point, I think we can say that I ought to neither damage nor destroy the other, but to preserve it.

Hume says:

For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

There is no derivation of prescriptions from descriptions among the bullet points.

There is instead an account of how an organism with obligations could come into existence.

It may be inconceivable that there could be a deduction.  In contrast, it is conceivable that prescriptions could originate in an evolutionary world.  It is not a deduction.

Hume could not conceive of either more than a century before Darwin.

The strictly logical point that Hume made does not entail that there can be no bridge at all from descriptions to prescriptions.   It is a contemporary error to think that it does.

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The Irrationality of Relativism

Some maintain that moral judgments are nothing more than the opinion of the judge.

The evidence for this is the fact that people make incompatible moral judgments.

The observable variation in moral opinion is not the only relevant evidence.  It is also necessary to explain why morality is universal and why it is more effective to say that something is wrong than it is to say that you don’t like it.  If morality were just opinions, it would constitute a superfluous idiom.  If morality were just opinions, its effectiveness would be inexplicable.

The relativist hypothesis is that different moral codes are all basic rather than explicable in terms of underlying factors.

But we could expect differences in moral codes and moral opinions even if the basis of morality was shared by all moral agents.

The cause of the differences would be things like ignorance and error.  There are so many relevant causal factors that the differences are inevitable.

In view of all the relevant observations and possible explanations, it is irrational to be a relativist.


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The Duty to Shut Up

Psychologists once conducted the following experiment.  Small children were left in a room with toys, one of which was particularly attractive.  Some were told that they would be punished if they played with the attractive toy.  Others were told that it was wrong to do so.  Some weeks later, the children were again left in the room.  Nothing was said.  Those that had been told that it was wrong to play with the attractive toy were less likely to play with it than those that had been threatened.  They had accepted the belief that it was wrong to play with the toy, rationalized it in their own way, and acted accordingly.

This story shows that human beings are vulnerable to moralists.

It shows that moralists have power.

It illuminates the fact that moralists ought to act responsibly.

Moralists disagree with each other and, as a matter of logic, at most one can be right.  If at most one can be right, most are wrong.  You don’t have to be right to act responsibly but you have to try.  They way in which to act responsibly is to proportion your affirmations to the evidence.

The set of moralists include preachers, teachers, ethicists, newspaper columnists, and television pundits.  It is obvious that many do not act responsibly.  If they cannot bring themselves to act responsibly, they have a duty to shut up.

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