William Lane Craig on facts, tracts, and things abstract

I’m grateful to Alex Rosenberg and William Lane Craig for taking the time to respond to my post, “Fact-checking the Craig-Rosenberg debate“. I edited in a few of Rosenberg’s comments from correspondence, but Craig’s public reply, “Fact-checking the fact-checker“, is more in-depth, and deserves a response in its own right. I’ll single out two points for special attention: historical methodology, and the idea of immaterial causation.


Scripture and scholarship

Craig writes of my

[…] breezy dismissal of N. T. Wright’s scholarly work because Wright is “a Christian apologist and bishop” and of the work of New Testament historians in general because they are allegedly Christians […]

I didn’t dismiss Christian scholarship. What I wrote was:

Craig doesn’t note that most New Testament scholars are Christians. (Are we to take it as evidence for the truth of Christianity that a lot of Christians happen to be Christian?)

Now, of course being a Christian doesn’t make it impossible for you to evaluate Christianity in a fair and skeptical way. I believe very strongly that the Earth is round, but that doesn’t mean that I’d be hopelessly biased in a debate with flat-Earthers. Agnosticism does not imply objectivity, and objectivity does not imply agnosticism. If anything, we’d be worried if most New Testament scholars weren’t Christians, since that would suggest that the historical evidence tended to make people less religious than the general populace.

But it’s also worth noting that Christian orthodoxy is not generally considered by historians the only possible objective interpretation of the evidence of the Gospels. And appealing to scholarly consensus here is misleading inasmuch as it has the guise of an appeal to independent authorities, as opposed to authorities who already came into the field accepting Christianity.

The charge was not that being Christian invalidates one’s scholarly work on Christianity. It was that, in the context of a debate with non-theists, it’s misleading to appeal to the authority of historians qua historians without mentioning that most of them came into the field already accepting the conclusion for which you’re arguing. (From childhood, no less!)

Suppose you’re debating a Muslim theologian who asserts that we can be confident that Muhammad is a prophet because virtually all Qur’anic scholars accept historical claims that provide powerful inductive evidence for Muhammad’s lofty status. If in the process he does not mention that most Qur’anic scholars are (and always have been) committed Muslims, then his argument risks deceiving people into thinking he’s adducing wholly independent grounds for accepting Islam. That’s so whether or not you ‘breezily dismiss’ Qur’anic studies itself.

If Craig’s point had merely been ‘There are a lot of very smart Christians who have carefully studied Christianity and still believe in it,’ I would have had no objection. Likewise, I have no objection to citing the specific historical arguments of Christian scholars, which can then be evaluated in their own right, without any need to consider the personal beliefs of the arguer. But when you’re citing the people themselves as authorities, their religious precommitments do start to become relevant, in the cases of Christian and non-Christian religions alike.

CraigHe thereby displays his unfamiliarity with New Testament studies and with the skepticism with which these scholars — which include among their ranks non-theists like Bart Ehrman and Jewish scholars like Geza Vermes who concur with my three facts — approach their sources.

I never suggested that all New Testament scholars are Christian. But Craig is doing what I wanted him to do in the debate, which is citing non-Christian authorities to strengthen his case — so I thank him for that.

That said, I should note that Craig is mistaken about Ehrman. Ehrman did claim that Jesus’ empty tomb was a historical fact in a 2003 lecture, but in a 2006 debate — a debate with Craigavailable on Craig’s site — Ehrman said that he had changed his mind. Quoth Ehrman:

Paul said he [Jesus] got buried; he may simply have been tossed into a communal grave. I should point out that in some of Bill’s writings, he’s quoted a lot of my writings, and he’s taken them out of context, as I’ll show in a few minutes, because what he’s saying I’ve changed my mind to, I don’t agree with. […]

We don’t know if Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea. What we have are Gospel stories written decades later by people who had heard stories in circulation, and it’s not hard at all to imagine somebody coming up with the story. We don’t know if his tomb was empty three days later. We don’t know if he was physically seen by his followers afterwards.

And Craig recognized this during their debate, saying,

Insofar as Dr. Ehrman now chooses to deny the honorable burial, the empty tomb, the appearances, he is in the decided minority of New Testament scholarship with regard to those facts.

We should keep in mind that Ehrman doesn’t deny “the appearances“, provided that dreams or visions would qualify as “appearances“. But in any case, Ehrman tells me he’ll give more details (and explain why he changed his mind) in his upcoming book, How Jesus Became God.

There are a number of further ambiguities that led to my charge of “misleading”. To keep Craig’s claims in context, I’ll quote much of his argument from the debate, adding numbers where I have questions or comments below.

CraigGod is the best explanation of the historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth.[1] Historians have reached something of a consensus that Jesus came on the scene with an unprecedented sense of divine authority, the authority to stand and speak in God’s place.[2] He claimed that in himself the Kingdom of God had come. And as visible demonstrations of this fact, he carried out a ministry of miracle-working and exorcism. But the supreme confirmation of his claim was his resurrection from the dead.[3] If Jesus did rise from the dead, then it would seem that we have a divine miracle on our hands, and thus evidence for the existence of God.[4] Now, I realize most people think that the resurrection of Jesus is just something you accept — by faith, or not. But there are actually three facts recognized by the majority of historians today which I believe are best explained by the resurrection of Jesus.[5] […] Naturalistic[6] attempts to explain away these three great facts, like “the disciples stole the body” or “Jesus wasn’t really dead,” have been universally[7] rejected[8] by contemporary scholarship.[9]

1. The best possible explanation, or just the best one anyone has yet come up with? And if the latter, is Craig further claiming that this is a good historical explanation, or merely that it’s not as bad as the alternatives?

2. It’s very unclear what’s being asserted here. Is Craig saying that no one prior to Jesus had ever claimed to speak in the name of a supreme deity?

3. Craig began by saying that “historians have reached something of a consensus“. But he doesn’t indicate where his summary of that consensus ends and his own views begin. If Craig doesn’t intend to suggest that there is a historical consensus that Jesus worked real miracles and was raised from the dead, then he should draw the line between the two more explicitly. And since there isn’t such a consensus — and if there were, it would make Craig’s subsequent argument superfluous! — drawing that line can only improve the clarity and persuasiveness of Craig’s real point.

4. This claim is too weak for Craig’s purposes. Craig needs the resurrection to not just be evidence for God, but exceedingly strong evidence for God. Framing the question as ‘Is this evidence or not?’ risks trivializing the discussion, since most things that make claims likelier only do so by trifling amounts. Perhaps that sounds nitpicky, but it’s especially important to make the strength of one’s claims clear when discussing probabilistic arguments.

5. In the past, Craig has conceded that among historians “it is controversial whether the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation of those facts“. But he doesn’t mention this in the debate. Nor does he explain why, if historians understand the evidence Craig is citing so well, they are so reluctant to endorse Craig’s conclusion as the most reasonable historical hypothesis.

6. Be wary of false dilemmas. Craig’s hypothesis has to beat rival supernatural explanations, not just natural ones.

7. “Universally“? Is this hyperbole, or is it being claimed that no historian of early Christianity endorses any non-theological explanation of the facts Craig cites?

8. What does “rejection” mean here? Careful historians will assign rough probability estimates to hypotheses before picking some threshold that counts as ‘acceptance’ or ‘rejection’. So Craig might mean that historians assign a very low probability to each one of the “naturalistic” hypotheses to date — they don’t think any one is likely to be true. Or he might mean that historians who have looked at these hypothesis don’t assign a high probability to any of  them.

In the latter case, they may not have even considered whether they’re probably false, if they’ve only examined the evidence enough to determine whether they’re especially likely to be true. A paper ‘rejecting’ some hypothesis might simply be concluding that the evidence is too inconclusive to endorse the hypothesis, relative to general historical standards or relative to the rival hypotheses. If this is the case, then Craig’s argument will fail, since certainly ‘historians have not singled out any one naturalistic hypothesis as unusually plausible’ does not imply ‘each one of the naturalistic hypotheses is likely to be false’.

But there’s a further problem: Even historians who grant ‘each one of these hypotheses is likely to be false’ need not grant ‘it is likely that all of these hypotheses are false’. To make that leap is a probabilistic fallacy.

Consider a detective who thinks, ‘I’m sure that the killer is either the butler, the maid, or the professor; but I have no idea which of them did it!’ The detective might be extremely confident that the culprit is among those three candidates, but not at all confident in the guilt of any particular one. Or suppose I flip a fair coin ten times. The probability of any particular sequence of heads and tails (e.g., TTHHTTTTHH) is less than one in a thousand. But to conclude that it is likely for no sequence to occur, from the fact that it is not likely for any particular sequence to occur, would be absurd. In the same way, it is perfectly open to the naturalist to grant that no specific natural explanation is likely, without granting that a set-theoretic union of all the natural explanations (tomb robbers, or the women got lost, or the whole story came to an overenthusiastic follower in a dream, …, …) is unlikely too.

9. Lastly: Craig presents this as an argument for the existence of God. If we take ‘God’ to signify the Christian God, then one way for him to make his case would be to presuppose that there is some sort of deity, on the basis of his other seven arguments. The form of the historical argument would then be: ‘Given the anomalies surrounding Jesus, plus the fact that we know that some sort of intelligence created our universe, it is reasonable to conclude that this intelligence probably directly intervened in the events described by early Christians.’

On the other hand, if Craig thinks this historical argument could be used to independently conclude that some intelligence crafted the cosmos, then he can’t appeal to the other arguments as premises, and the inferential leap he’s making — from a few ancient manuscripts to the structure and origin of the entire universe — will become quite a bit harder to motivate.


Alexander Vilenkin

Immaterial causes and the Kalam argument

Craig: [O]ur blogger mistakenly thinks the theorem applies only to inflationary models, which is inaccurate, as the paper referenced above shows.

Craig is right. My thanks for pointing this out! And my apologies to any readers who took away from my post that Borde, Guth, and Vilenkin’s conclusion in “Inflationary spacetimes are not past-complete” applies only given inflation. It holds more generally of any model in which the universe expands on average.

In the debate, Craig presents the Kalam cosmological argument as follows:

1. The universe began to exist.

2. If the universe began to exist, then the universe has a transcendent cause.

3. Therefore the universe has a transcendent cause.

By the very nature of the case, that cause must be a transcendent immaterial being.

Rosenberg focused his attack on premise 2, but I would note that premise 1 remains deeply controversial among physicists. In response to the question “Did the universe have a beginning?”, physicist Sean Carroll writes, “Mithani and Vilenkin are […] willing to be honest about our state of ignorance: thus, ‘probably’ yes. I personally think the answer is ‘probably no,’ but none of us actually knows.” Carroll elaborated in correspondence:

[T]he BGV theorem refers to classical spacetimes, and the universe is not classical. That’s all that really needs to be said. Alex Vilenkin takes this classical result as a strong indication that the true quantum description of the universe also must have a beginning, but at best it’s suggestive. It’s absolutely plausible (and much more likely, in the view of many of us) that the actual universe is eternal, and the BGV result tells us that the classical description must break down, not that the universe must have had a beginning.

Carroll also notes, “The definition of ‘singularity in the past’ is not really the same as ‘had a beginning’ — it means that some geodesics must eventually come to an end. (Others might not.)” Craig has strongly disputed this. However, Vilenkin agrees with Carroll, though with the qualifier “most” in place of “some”. In response to Vic Stenger’s question “Does your theorem prove that the universe must have had a beginning?” (in The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning), Vilenkin responded,

No. But it proves that the expansion of the universe must have had a beginning.

More specifically, Vilenkin wrote,

The theorem says that if the universe is everywhere expanding (on average), then the histories of most particles cannot be extended to the infinite past. In other words, if we follow the trajectory of some particle to the past, we inevitably come to a point where the assumption of the theorem breaks down — that is, where the universe is no longer expanding. This is true for all particles, except perhaps a set of measure zero. In other words, there may be some (infinitely rare) particles whose histories are infinitely long.

Still, my main interest is not in disputing Craig’s premises, but in clarifying what accepting his conclusion would really mean. Since Craig bases much of his argument on the work of Vilenkin and his colleagues, it’s important to keep in mind that Vilenkin himself thinks that we can physically explain our universe’s beginning. In “Creation of universes from nothing“, Vilenkin posits that an empty geometry, devoid of time, space, matter, and energy, could give rise to the universe as we know it.

Previously, Craig has objected that this emptiness would not count as “literally nothing“, hence that Vilenkin fails to explain “being’s coming from non-being“. But Vilenkin is free to grant that the physicalist has no such account. In the context of the Kalam discussion, the physicalist’s burden is to explain, not how something could come from nothing, but how a universe with a beginning could come from an unintelligent but beginningless source. Since Vilenkin’s vacuum is atemporal, it has no beginning. Hence the Kalam argument cannot be reapplied to it. Perhaps some other philosophical objection can show theism to be superior to this hypothesis. But it will still be the case that the Kalam argument fails, at least in the sense that it cannot motivate theism on its own.

Two other potential sources of serious misunderstanding are Craig’s appeal to “transcendent” and “immaterial” causes. There is an obvious sense in which all causes ‘transcend’ their effects — because no event is self-causing. But theorists might wish to deny premise 2 if the premise is taken to mean that something past-eternal couldn’t cause our universe by becoming our universe.

Physicists like Vilenkin are also likely to be wary of the imprecision of the term “immaterial“. This term is pivotal in Craig’s argument, particularly since for him the term “universe” is defined in terms of the material, as “the whole of material reality“. When I raised this concern, Craig responded that he was quite clear:

I am using the word in the ordinary language sense to mean “not material” or “non-physical.”

… Well, sure. My problem wasn’t with the ‘im-‘ prefix. It was with what we’re considering ‘material’ or ‘physical’ in the first place. What general criterion can we use to tell material things apart from immaterial ones? I’ll run through a variety of options:

  • (a) By “material” Craig means ‘made of matter‘, in the sense used in physics. So the universe is the totality of things with spatial extent and mass.
    • Objection: This would make most of physics — spacetime, light, and gravitation, for starters — immaterial. Craig clearly doesn’t mean this, because he wants to exclude physicsy things like these as possible causes for our world.
  • (b) By “material” Craig means ‘nonmental‘. So the Kalam argument simply says that all nonmental things have a beginning, and everything with a beginning must have a cause, so the first nonmental things must have a mental cause.
    • Objection 1: This would make Craig’s position on the mind-body debate trivial, since his rejection of physicalists’ claims that mental processes are ultimately physical would then be merely definitional. (If it weren’t definitional, that would mean he allows the possibility that something could be both material and immaterial, which is, to put it mildly, confusing!)
    • Objection 2: This would render incoherent the distinction between two categories of immaterial thing Craig recognizes: Minds, and abstract objects. If ‘immaterial’ just means ‘mental’, then we can’t even meaningfully talk about neither-mental-nor-physical things like numbers. So this can’t be what Craig has in mind.
  • (c) By “material” Craig means ‘part of our spacetime manifold‘. This matches Vilenkin’s own definition of “universe” as the totality of spacetime regions connected to our own.
    • Objection: This allows that other, disconnected spacetimes might be candidate causes for our universe. Craig might simply deny, on grounds of parsimony, that there are any such spacetimes. But it still seems strange to say that such things, if they existed, would be ‘immaterial’.
  • (d) By “material” Craig means ‘spatial and/or temporal‘. So other spacetimes, if such there be, are included in what Craig calls the “universe”.
    • Objection: Human minds are temporal, hence would count as ‘material’ in this sense. This isn’t inappropriate if the Kalam cosmological argument is meant to explain all of Creation (including the mental parts of Creation), but it does contradict Craig’s stated views on the nature of mind.
  • (e) By “material” Craig means ‘spatial‘. This captures well Craig’s intuition that abstract objects and minds (both human and divine) seem immaterial, as well as his claim that branes are “physical“.
    • Objection 1: Vilenkin’s arguments at most show that “material reality” has a beginning if “material reality” is defined in terms of (c). Vilenkin’s argument does generalize to expanding multiverses, but he is silent on the issue of whether all completely disconnected physical structures, if such there be, have beginnings. So if Craig has (d) or (e) in mind when he speaks of “material reality“, he will need new, independent arguments to show that this reality too must have a beginning.
    • Objection 2: What exactly does ‘non-spatial’ mean? If it means ‘lacking spatial extent’, then point particles might count as ‘immaterial’. If it means ‘lacking spatial location’, then human minds might count as ‘material’. (This will be especially problematic if we cash out divine omnipresence in terms of spatial extension or location.)
  • (f) By “material” Craig means ‘describable in the language of physics‘.
    • Objection 1: What gets to count as ‘the language of physics‘? If we define this too strictly, then we risk calling the posits of slightly nonstandard variants of physics ‘immaterial’. On the other hand, if we define it too laxly, we start to lose any principled way to deny materiality of, for example, the mental.
    • Objection 2: What about physical laws? Craig considers such laws abstract (hence immaterial), but it’s not clear in what sense they could be foreign to physical description.

Of these, I think criterion (e) is the best option, despite its problems. It gets a lot of work done and yet is very simple. But Craig explicitly rejects (e) in the “spatially extended” sense, so his view may be closer to (f). In that case, we can restate his Kalam argument:

1. Every existent describable by an adequately physicslike theory began to exist.

2. If all such things began to exist, then they must ultimately have a cause that is not physicslike.

3. Therefore there is something un-physicslike that is the ultimate cause of everything physicslike.

Expressed this way, in terms of (f), Vilenkin himself strongly rejects premise 1. Likewise if we revised this argument to unpack “material reality” through definition (b). In the (a) and (c) variants, Vilenkin would accept premise 1, but conclude that his empty geometry is an ‘immaterial cause’ in the requisite sense. And if we replaced the argument with one appealing to (d) or (e), Vilenkin would probably maintain agnosticism about premise 1, but would again insist that his empty geometry, being non-spatiotemporal, is an adequate ‘immaterial cause’ as defined. So all of these ways of formulating the Kalam argument either make one (or both) of the premises scientifically dubious, or make the conclusion acceptable to non-theists.
The Music of Gounod - a Thought Form from Thought-Forms, by Annie Besant & C.W. Leadbeater
Still, for the sake of argument, suppose we granted something akin to the (f) version of the Kalam argument above, and concluded that something alien to contemporary physics (like a mind, number, or free-floating law) were causally responsible for the physical world. Would this suffice for establishing that a mind is the cause?

Craig thinks so. He reasons that we know that numbers and laws are “abstract objects“, and abstract objects have no causal effects. Since no one has been able to think of an immaterial object that is neither mental nor abstract, the only reasonable causal candidate is mental. When I suggested that there might be other immaterial causes to choose between, like the Forms of Plato, Craig responded:

Platonic forms and free-floating laws are abstract objects, so I just have no idea of what other world-transcending causes he’s talking about. If he can give us such a candidate, I’ll add it to the list of candidates to be considered, but I have yet to see such a candidate suggested, much less one that is more plausible than a transcendent mind.

This response surprised me. Craig has written a great deal about what’s nowadays called ‘platonism,’ or realism about abstract objects. But Craig’s assertion here reflects a lack of familiarity with the core doctrine of Plato himself, the doctrine that the sensible world is a product of the eternal Forms. Against Craig 2013, I cite Craig 2009:

By the way, what passes for Platonism today shouldn’t be identified with what Plato himself actually believed. For Plato, the Forms do not seem to be at all causally impotent but shape the world to be as it is. The debate over so-called abstract objects is actually a very recent development of contemporary philosophy which arose only in the late 19th century.

The source of Craig’s latter-day lapse is likely an ambiguity in the terms ‘platonism’ and ‘abstract’. By ‘abstract object’ philosophers (including I and Craig) usually mean ‘something non-spatiotemporal and causally inert’. But some  philosophers use the term more loosely, to refer to anything non-spatiotemporal. Plato’s Forms are abstract in the latter sense, but not in the former sense; and it is only the former sense that is relevant to Craig’s rejection of abstract objects as causes. As Gideon Rosen writes: “Plato’s Forms were supposed to be causes par excellence, whereas abstract objects are generally supposed to be causally inert in every sense.”

A second source of confusion is that even though belief in abstract objects is often called ‘platonism’ or ‘platonic realism’, Plato himself was a nominalist, and not a platonist or realist. (Paul Spade notespp. 56-61, that Plato is probably a nominalist, not just about abstracta, but about universals as well. Plato’s Forms, as usually presented, are potent particulars.)

Most metaphysicians these days consider the actual Forms of Plato so implausible as to be of merely historic interest, in contrast to the vibrant debate surrounding abstract objects. Since these abstracta have a superficial resemblance to the Forms, and are taken more seriously, the name of Plato is appropriated as a colorful way of picking out abstracta. Whence Craig’s conflation of the two.

But why do modern philosophers dismiss the Form of  Duality in favor of the abstractum 2? Simply on the grounds that our universe is causally closed. Plato’s actual views are dismissed with a chuckle, while abstract-object ‘platonism’ is vigorously attacked and defended, because Plato’s Forms purport to ‘spookily’ intrude upon our everyday lives and in the very existence of our cosmos, while abstract objects kindly recuse themselves from the realm of empirical science.

But this is precisely the assumption someone arguing for a universe-begetting intelligence cannot grant. Either Craig is illicitly assuming the causal closure of the physical when it harms rival doctrines and then rejecting it when the focus shifts to his preferred posit, or he simply hasn’t taken the time to seriously assess any hypotheses invoking unintelligent immaterial causes.

My point in all this isn’t to defend Plato’s doctrines, or for that matter Vilenkin’s. It’s merely to suggest that Craig is far too hasty in moving from his conclusion of the Kalam argument to an invocation of transcendent minds, divine or not.


Just the facts

CraigThis blog is not really fact-checking (which would have involved alerting readers to factual mistakes like my ascribing a quotation to Penelope Maddy instead of Mary Leng or my giving the date of Caesar Augustus’ death as AD 17 rather than AD 14) so much as it is entering into the debate itself in assessment of the arguments.

That’s true to an extent. I generally limited myself to evaluating the soundness of Craig and Rosenberg’s arguments, and not to putting forward novel arguments of my own for the broader topics under dispute. For instance, I didn’t weigh in with my own view on the historicity of Jesus, on the right interpretation of quantum mechanics, or for that matter on the existence of a deity. (The main exception: I provided an argument of my own in §10, mainly to give an example of what deductive arguments from evil should look like.)

So whatever I was doing, it wasn’t prototypical ‘fact-checking’, but it was still decidedly from the sidelines. And I think you can tell from the tone that I was mainly using the ‘fact-check’ idiom as a fun way to spice up a relatively long post. (After all, one of my checks was just an excuse to make a Scientology pun.)

For all that, I’d be very interested to see a deeper discussion about where to draw the lines between (neutral? objective?) ‘fact-checking’ and personally entering the fray. Is a fact-checker allowed to evaluate the validity of arguments, or only the truth of premises? Can she only evaluate trivial claims, or can she also question premises that are central to a debater’s whole case? How uncontroversial or obvious does a truth have to be in order to count as a ‘fact’? I don’t have easy answers to these questions myself.

However this discussion started, it’s now moving into increasingly interesting and important philosophical waters. I’d love to hear Craig’s and others’ responses to the new historical, methodological, cosmological, and metaphysical issues raised so far.


Further reading
Craig, William Lane (2008). “Current Work on God and Abstract
Objects” Reasonable Faith.
Guth, Alan (2002). “The Inflationary Universe“. Edge.
Rodriguez-Pereyra, Gonzalo (2011). “Nominalism in Metaphysics“. SEP.
Rosen, Gideon (2012). “Abstract Objects“. SEP.

God is no libertarian

So the world was made by a perfectly benevolent, compassionate, loving God. Yet suffering exists.

Why would a nice guy like God make a world filled with so much nastiness? All these wars, diseases, ichneumon wasps—what possible good purpose could they all serve?

We want God to make our lives meaningful, purpose-driven. Yet we don’t want that purpose to be super depressing. ‘God is a nice guy from his own perspective, but a total asshole by all human standards’ would be a pretty unsatisfying theodicy, and a terrible way to fill the pews. So how do we square a good God with a wicked world?

The standard response is that being truly good requires that one love freedom. God is so good that he won’t interfere with human freedom by preventing suffering. That certainly sounds nice; we don’t want to make autocracy the highest good. But how can this work in practice?

The idea seems to be that we are somehow to blame for our suffering. God, then, is off the hook. We’re free to blame ourselves (rather than God) for whatever evil things befall us. What’s more, we’re free to credit God (rather than ourselves) for whatever good things we accomplish. In this way we can, if we wish, preserve the pure wretchedness of man and the pure excellence of God. We are free to translate the complexity of human experience into a crisp conflict between total sin and total virtue. But there are deep problems with this approach: The shape of our world seems profoundly unlike the shape we’d expect from a libertarian architect.


First Problem: Natural evil limits freedom.

It’s clear that not all suffering stems from human action. If God had protected the 230,000+ victims of the 2004 tsunami, how would this have interfered with human freedom? Would it not, if anything, it have increased our freedom, by giving the tsunami’s victims a chance to live out their lives?

One might respond that the tsunami’s destruction could have been greatly reduced by human actions. Perhaps God gave us just enough power to save ourselves, and we simply did not employ it.

But blaming the victims simply does not work here. No matter what we had done, we could not have saved every life. And if some people were to blame for the level of devastation, surely those people should have been punished, not innocent bystanders. Which brings us to…

Second Problem: Human evil limits freedom.

If God loves freedom, why does he let people obstruct and enslave one another? Why does he allow oppressors more freedoms than the oppressed? Why not give us just enough freedom to control our own lives, so long as it does not infringe upon the freedom of others?

The problem of evil raises special concerns for individual freedom. You might claim, for example, that humans (and not God) are responsible even for natural disasters, because Adam and Eve introduced suffering and death into the world when they disobeyed God. But that is not a crime committed by every human being, such that every human deserves punishment for it. It is a crime committed by two particular humans. How can we justify punishing someone else for a perfect stranger’s crime? Certainly it is not my fault if I was born to a sinful father. We can’t choose our parents.

(To my knowledge, Origen is the only theologian to have ever resolved this problem. Unfortunately, later thinkers generally consider Origen’s views heretical, and even Origen falls victim to religion’s standard “blame the victim” mentality.)

Third Problem: Our freedom is physically limited.

It’s easy to say that God loves freedom by counting the hits (look at all the things he lets us do!) and ignoring the misses (the things we can’t do). But of course we aren’t free to do whatever we want. God created us in a very specific way, strictly limiting what we can will ourselves to do. We can’t fly merely by flapping our arms. We can’t will aches and pains to go away. We can’t even go directly to Heaven merely by willing it.

So what? What’s the problem? Well, we’ve granted that freedom isn’t absolute, that a good God would make beings free in some respects, but not in others. But now we are forced to explain why God limits our freedom in the particular way that he does. Why give us the freedom to make sandwiches and fire guns, but not the freedom to cure all diseases or teleport away from natural disasters?

If we can’t even begin to explain this, then ‘God loves freedom’ ceases to be a viable justification for suffering. The question is now why God loves this particular freedom (the ‘freedom’ to suffer even when we’d prefer not to) more than he loves rival freedoms (the freedom not to suffer!). A generic appeal to ‘freedom’ can’t even begin to address this question.

Fourth Problem: Our freedom is epistemically limited.

This is the problem of ignorance, a far deeper and thornier issue than the standard problem of evil. What can it mean to say that God respects freedom, when he obviously doesn’t respect informed freedom?

Freedom, in fact, seems quite meaningless when it is not informed. Imagine a child told to pick between two closed doors. Behind one door is a fierce tiger, and behind the other door is chocolate. If the child chooses the door that happens to have a tiger, can we blame the child for his messy death? Surely not.

Yet we, too, live in a world we scarcely understand. It is often claimed that God hides himself from us in order to give us the freedom to doubt him, to choose our beliefs for ourselves. But in fact God’s hiddenness has the opposite effect; it takes away from us our freedom—our freedom to make an informed choice. Since we do not know which religion, if any, is the correct one, we can hardly be blamed if we err. Yet theists assert that those who fail to find God will suffer (e.g., in Hell or merely ‘the absence of God’), and that they deserve to suffer.

Being forced to play Russian roulette, and then losing, is not the same as committing suicide. The freedom to guess is not freedom. It’s just a slavery to chance. Only the freedom to choose between options whose consequences we fully comprehend is genuine freedom, because only then do we really know what option we’re choosing. Yet clearly God did not create beings who fully understand their actions’ consequences. Least of all in the realm of religion.


The notion of ‘freedom’ favored by our allegedly well-meaning deity, then, ends up looking extremely peculiar. God evidently only loves freedom when it can infringe upon (and be infringed upon by) others’ freedom, and when it is severely limited in seemingly arbitrary ways, such that we are not free to escape suffering in this life or to make informed choices. After qualifying what God prizes in so many strange ways, what evidence remains for the supposition that these preferences even slightly resemble what we call “morality” or “compassion” in the case of humans?

I can think of four possible responses.

  • To Problem 1: Perhaps God created a perfectly orderly world, and in such a world it was inevitable that some disasters would arise.

This doesn’t explain why God created the particular world he did, or why he created at all. It also doesn’t explain why God prizes abstract “order” more than human welfare. Couldn’t he create a world that naturally has typhoons, yet still intervene to save the people victimized by his natural order? The fact that buildings inevitably fall down sometimes doesn’t make it any less immoral to choose not to save people from falling buildings if you’re able.

  • To Problem 2: It’s not God’s fault that humans hurt one another.

The issue isn’t that God’s to blame for everything humans do. It’s that God chose to limit human freedom in one way, but not in another. He made us free to harm one another, but not free to be safe from others’ harm. What makes the former freedom more important than the latter? Why is the villain’s freedom prized above the victim’s? Even if God doesn’t directly cause every human action, he still chose which possibilities to leave open. That calls for explanation.

  • To Problem 3: If we could do anything, we’d be God.

This relies on a false dilemma. It’s not that case that God needs to either make humans omnipotent, or deny them the ability to escape suffering. He could easily give them that one ability, while continuing to deny them other abilities. This on its own would radically decrease the suffering in the world, and radically increase people’s freedom.

And, as an aside: What’s wrong with being God? God sure seems to like it!

  • To Problem 4: If we knew everything, we’d be God.

Again, we don’t need to be omniscient merely to know the consequences of our actions. God chose to create beings that are ignorant of almost everything. If such beings sin without fully understanding the consequences, they cannot ethically be held more responsible than God for what ensues.

Harry Potter and the Fuzzies of Altruism

This is a shorter version of a post for Miri Mogilevsky’s blog, Brute Reason.

Effective Altruists are do-gooders with a special interest in researching the very best ways to do good, such as high-impact poverty reduction and existential risk reduction. A surprising number of them are also Harry Potter fans, probably owing to the success of the EA-promoting fanfic Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

The author, Eliezer Yudkowsky, calls that nice inner glow you feel when you help people “warm fuzzies“. But it’s a common error to assume that everyone thinks and perceives the same way you do, and I’ve come to notice that not everyone who’s interested in charity and social justice gets identical “fuzzies”. People with the same humanitarian goals can differ, not just in their philosophy and tactics but even in their basic psychological motivations. So I decided to construct a taxonomy of fuzzies modeled after the four Houses of Hogwarts.


slytherfuzzies — how it feels to save the world by improving yourself, mastering your own will, and achieving your personal goals. Slytherfuzzies are that self-esteem boost, that sense of being effective and just plain Awesome, when you successfully help people. At an extreme, people’s happiness is seen as a tool for achieving slytherfuzzies (or just Victory), rather than your drives being a tool to help others. Picture Gandhi cackling in a darkened, smoke-filled room, muttering, ‘All goes according to plan…’


ravenfuzzies — how it feels to save the world as an intellectually stimulating puzzle. One helps people not so much out of felt empathy as out of boredom, or curiosity, or a conviction that happy, healthy human-style intelligences help make the world a more beautiful, interesting, and complicated place.


gryffinfuzzies — how it feels to save the world from within a hero narrative, (e)utopian vision, or any sort of Moral Quest. A gryffinfuzzy can be as proud as a slytherfuzzy, but the grounds for pride are externalized — things are finally The Right Way, not necessarily my right way.


hufflefuzzies — how it feels to save the world in the form of lots and lots of sick baby bunnies. Hufflefuzzies are warm. Personal. Social. Fuzzy. They’re probably the most common and essential source of altruism. They are units of reverse schadenfreude, of empathic joy, of emotional connection, solidarity, or belonging.


In my own case, I seem to be mostly motivated by gryffinfuzzies. I find that surprising, because philosophically I’m much more likely to explain and defend my ethical views in terms of the value of empathy (like a hufflepuff bodhisattva), or the value of diversity (like a ravenclaw Feyerabendian), or just in terms of my personal preferences (like a slytherin existentialist). Apparently my core moral intuitions are quite distinct from my intellectualizations of morality.

What about you? What drives you to do good? What combinations of fuzzies do you experience, or would you like to? Do they vary for different kinds of charitable work? Do my groupings make sense to you, and are there any fuzzies I’ve left out?

America’s anthem

AceTerrier has a disastrously interesting blog, Don’t Stay Up Too Late, on 20th-century pop music. Here’s his conclusion to an article on the evolution and context of 1940s American music:

“It is the national anthem, and it lies in waiting for the America that will someday sing it with one voice. Arthur only sleeps; he will return when Britain needs him most. So it is with Woody Guthrie and his most beautiful and dangerous song.

“But until then we have a lot of national anthems, as befits a nation of such size and variety, and the official one is the worst of them all, which is only fitting for a country that prides itself on its greatness in all things and loathes its government. Apart from its other routinely-mentioned defects — it’s unsingable, it’s about a minor war, and even the story told about its creation, which is the only thing it has going for it, isn’t true — “The Star Spangled Banner” is schlock enshrined as piety. Which should be no surprise — we’re a nation of hustlers and nouveau-riche climbers, and our taste is as suspect as our intentions. We make things and sell them; whether art is involved doesn’t impact the bottom line, and only vaguely interests us. We know what we like.

“The first national anthem, “Yankee Doodle,” probably should have been retained, its goofy air of cussedness and the cheerful fuck-you attitude that allowed Americans to adopt it after the British sang it in mockery remaining wonderful evocations of the American spirit that has persisted in all the great pop production that made America the cultural force for good it has been in the world: American music, comics, movies, television, and comedy has always been chasing after the deliriously bizarre image of “stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni” ever since the meaning of the word changed. But of course it’s not self-serious enough for the other American spirit, the prim and proper spirit, the one that wears the top hat that, in the elemental American gag, gets knocked off by a chance snowball. It’s those people, in every country, who demand real national anthems, ones that can only be sung by choirs in four-part harmony with big brass accompaniment, rather than whistled by a kid walking barefoot down the road.

“The other two early nineteenth-century anthems — “America The Beautiful” and “My Country, ’Tis Of Thee” — are far more coherent as tunes and sentiments, but they’re still too sappy, and one of them even borrows the melody off “God Save The King/Queen.” Royalist treason! but of course that too is part of America; few Britons can manage to be quite so Anglophilic as a certain breed of idealistic American, as nineteenth-century lecturers, writers like C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, and anyone who ever argued on the internet about Britpop all discovered to their profit (or detriment, depending). And then there are the anthems of the Civil War — “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic” and “Dixie” — both of which have great sentimental value and are calibrated to offend and annoy at least half the population of the country. The self-righteous abolitionist fervor of the “Battle Hymn” would, that end accomplished (and once they been emancipated, fuck ’em), move on to the next moral horror destroying the nation: alcohol consumption. Which obviously turned out well. As for “Dixie,” well, the sovereign irony of the slave-owning South marching to war singing a song written from the perspective of a free black man (even if he does pine for the ol’ plantation) is its own reward.

““Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing” combines the best of both worlds, the moral fervor of “Battle Hymn” and the democratic underclass perspective of “Dixie,” but the fact that none but black children are taught it (and not many of those, any more) has to date kept it from being embraced by the widest possible audience. And so into the twentieth century.

“The penultimate national anthem is, of course, Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” the one that still gets sung at seventh-inning stretches not because anyone wants to but because everyone is too afraid of being called unpatriotic to suggest cutting it and just doing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” which was good enough for our grandfathers, who kicked Hitler’s ass, for God’s sake, but I digress. In fact, the obnoxious omnipresence of “God Bless America” is a direct echo of the circumstances surrounding it: Berlin, who famously never wrote a song unless he felt its sentiment keenly himself, wanted to write a patriotic song to lift America’s spirits out of the Depression. The ghetto-born son of Russian Jewish immigrants who despite not being able to read music or play in more than one key became the most popular and beloved songwriter alive in America, he was honestly grateful to the country which had given him the opportunities which he, with a sharp-eyed hustler’s instinct for the main chance, had grabbed onto with both hands. “God Bless America,” especially as sung by the big, blowsy-voiced alto Kate Smith, became the de facto national anthem, especially once we got into the war and pietistic nationalism was the order of the day throughout popular culture.

“In New York, a fellow-traveling Okie who loved nothing more than reinventing himself, unless it was sticking it to capitalists, was sick and tired of hearing Kate Smith boom out “God Bless America” every ding-durned day on the radio, practically as regularly as a station identification. In fact the more he thought about it, the more pissed off he got. It was capitalist Republican humbug, and mawkish to boot. It was, in fact, better suited to a sentimental Eastern European parlor than to the grinning, wiry-muscled, cigarette-dangling, and dirty with the dirt of many roads America which he knew, or believed he knew; like most idealistic autodidacts, he believed implicitly in the truth of his wide experience. He’d write one better.

“He recorded “This Land Is Your Land” for Asch for the first time in 1944, and played and sang it everywhere he got the chance, encouraging others to do the same. It wasn’t formally published until the 1950s, and even then came with the copyright legend “This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright #154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.” (Woody really was from rural Oklahoma, but he embellished the nonstandardness of his dialect as much as possible out of perversity and a leavening sense of fun.) He snarkily subtitled it “God Blessed America,” accent on the past tense, meaning His work is done, it’s up to us to figure out and implement the best use of what we’ve been handed, rather than waiting on Biggest Brother to sort out our shit for us.

“But the real spirit of the song isn’t in its hail-fellow-up-yours rejoinder to Tin Pan Alley, or even in its infamous anti-capitalism verse (a version of which is included in this cut of the song, though not as direct as in some takes). In its broadminded embrace of the vastness and variety of the nation, it’s the first national anthem since “America The Beautiful” to describe patriotism as a love of the country rather than the civilization. It’s about the land, and the people on it, not the government or the military or the moral rectitude or even the culture, popular or otherwise. And Guthrie’s plainspoken directness even avoids the picture-postcard prettiness and sentimentalism of “America The Beautiful.” Instead of amber waves of grain (symbolizing the agricultural wealth of the Midwest), there’s a plain ribbon of highway; instead of fruited plains (which doesn’t even make sense, the plains are barren, that’s what makes them plains) there’s a golden valley. Everything, that is, exists in potential, not categorical, terms for Woody.

“And America at its best, at its most honest and fundamental core, is also a nation of potentiality. It’s why we developed film and comics and recorded music into such uniquely immediate narrative forms. To pluck (say) Cary Grant out of history, to capture and preserve him forever in The Philadelphia Story or Arsenic And Old Lace or Bringing Up Baby, is to give the finger to death and decay. The slow decline and sudden shock of nonexistence have no place in movies, except as part of an intelligible, sane moral order. Dorothy Parker’s bon mots can live forever, even as the witty pixie of the 20s becomes the alcoholic bitch of the 50s and 60s; Bing Crosby’s golden, reassuring burble on record can establish a corner of idyllic harmony in which he never abused his kids or fucked anyone over; Krazy and Ignatz can keep hurling bricks and sonnets at each other into infinity even as George Herriman’s ashes blow across the pink mesas. Movies and records and yes printed material too establish miniature universes in which the unresolved tensions and categorical evils of this one need not apply; all art is artificial, and all pop is art. […]

“I have come within the last several years to accept the fact that I love my country (the knee-jerk anti-Americanism of a youth spent abroad with a clear view of her cruelty and arrogance needs no further elaboration), and it is the music she has given the world that has reconciled me to her. This, I thought, should be explained. I have attempted to do so.

“But I would not be misunderstood. […] I no more love what she was than I love what she is; and what she is — a nation of self-satisfied gluttons addicted to shrill nonsense and perfectly willing to destroy the planet in the name of convenience and profit — is of all possible nations the least lovable.

“But of course that is not all America is. Nothing is ever all America is. So because I love her potential, I love her infinite variety; every version of America is possible in such space. From the redwood forest to the gulf stream waters. From California to the New York island. The sparkling sands of her diamond desert. The wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling: either alone is intolerable, smug fatness or apocalyptic despair, but together they sum up the contradictions, the extremes, the combination, in every imaginable ratio, of great evil and great good, which means America. As it means everywhere. To be a true patriot, as G. K. Chesterton noted, is to embrace all the earth in one’s fierce pride of place, because our common humanity is, at last, our only refuge from the darkness which howls within us and without.

“This is why I listen to the music of the 40s, and of every era, why like any good history obsessive I rage against the forgetting of anything however trivial; the more opportunities we have to connect, to observe and embrace our common humanity in all its difficulty and squalor and pretension and meaninglessness and fragile beauty across the street or across the ocean or across the ages, the better we’ll be. This is the very opposite of the art snob who thinks that exposure to the Great Works of Humanity makes him a better person; it’s exposure to humanity period that does it, and that humanity is present in everything.

“America, fuck yeah. Copulation and affirmation. Ain’t nothin’ more American, ’cause ain’t nothin’ more human. Happy trails, motherfuckers. See you round the bend.”



Moral theory is for moral practice

Sam Harris has argued that we should treat situations as morally desirable in proportion to their share of experiential well-being. In a debate, William Lane Craig objected:

On the next-to-last page of his book, Dr. Harris makes the telling admission that if people like rapists, liars, and thieves could be just as happy as good people, then his “moral landscape” would no longer be a moral landscape. Rather, it would just be a continuum of well-being whose peaks are occupied by good and bad people, or evil people, alike. […] The peaks of well-being could be occupied by evil people. But that entails that in the actual world, the continuum of well-being and the moral landscape are not identical either. For identity is a necessary relation.

I think the real problem here isn’t that it could be moral to make evil people happy. Harris and I gladly bite that bullet. The deeper worry is that, in a world teeming with pathological sadists, torturing a minority might well increase aggregate psychological welfare. Yet it would be absurd to conclude that torturing an innocent in such a world is moral.

This is a perfectly fair argument. But Harris simply responds, “Not a realistic concern.

Why the lack of interest? Because, I think, any claim that the English-language word ‘good’ means ‘well-being’, picking it out across all possible worlds, is beside the point for Harris.

A world of sociopaths or sadists would be trapped in a valley of the moral landscape. Fixating on a few tiny hills at the bottom of that valley is missing the big picture, which is that the truly moral act would be to cure the world of its antisocial tendencies, not to indulge them. It’s sort of ‘moral’ for a doctor to spend most of her time making delicious pies for her rapidly deteriorating patients. I mean, baking for others is a good deed, right? But it’s immoral on a deeper level if it distracts the doctor from diagnosing or treating her patients. Craig’s example is alien enough to do some violence to an exact identification of ‘good’ with ‘well-being’, but it does nothing to undermine the enterprise of improving psychological welfare, because it misses the landscape for the hills in much the way the baker-doctor does.

So what is  Harris’ goal in The Moral Landscape ? He seems to want to establish four main theses:

1. Positive experience is what we value.
All the things we care about are instances of experiential well-being.

2. So we should value all positive experience.
Our strongest unreflective desires will be furthered if we come to value such experience in general, however and wherever it manifests. For this binds all of our values together, encouraging us to work together on satisfying them.

3. Morality is about satisfying that universal value.
Since this is the most inclusive normative project we could all legitimately collaborate on, and since it overlaps a great deal with our most rationally defensible moral intuitions, it makes consummate sense to call this project ‘morality’.

4. So science is essential for getting morality right.
The best way to fulfill this valuing-of-experienced-value is to empirically study the conditions for strongly valenced experience.

I’m very skeptical about 1 on any strong interpretation, but I’ll talk about that another time. (EDIT: See Loving the merely physical.) Though Harris places a lot of emphasis on 1, I don’t think it is needed to affirm 2, 3, or 4. Suppose we learn that some people really do value living outside the Matrix, keeping natural wonders intact, promoting ‘purity‘, obeying Yahweh, or doing the right thing for its own sake, and not solely the possible experiential effects of those things. Still Harris could argue that, say…

  • … those goals form a much less consistent whole than do the experiential ones. Perhaps, for instance, subjective projects come into conflict less often than objective ones because we have separate mental lives, but only one shared physical world.
  • education or philosophical reflection tends to make those goals less appealing.
  • … those goals make dubious metaphysical assumptions, in a way experiential goals don’t.
  • … those goals depend for their justification on experiential ones.
  • … those goals causally depend on experiential ones.
  • … those goals are somehow defective variants on, or limiting cases of, experiential ones.
  • … those goals are unusually rare, unusually temporally unstable, or unusually low-intensity.
  • … those goals are so different from experiential ones that they can’t all reasonably be lumped into a single category.

Some combination of the above conclusions could establish that experience-centered goals form a natural group that should, for pragmatic or theoretical reasons, be discussed in isolation. Once we’ve got such a group, we can then argue that our most prized goals will be furthered if we generically endorse the entire category (2), and that these goals will be further furthered if we reserve ethical language for this category (3). 4 will then fall out of 2 and 3 easily, as an empirical conclusion about the usefulness of empiricism itself.

On my view, then, the real action is in the case for 2 and 3. What is that case?

Why value value?

It’s important to highlight here that Harris doesn’t think everyone already generically values all positive experience. It would be a fallacy to deduce ‘everyone values every positive experience’ from ‘everything that’s valued by anyone is a positive experience’.

[I]n the moral sphere, it is safe to begin with the premise that it is good to avoid behaving in such a way as to produce the worst possible misery for everyone. I am not claiming that most of us personally care about the experience of all conscious beings; I am saying that a universe in which all conscious beings suffer the worst possible misery is worse than a universe in which they experience well-being. This is all we need to speak about “moral truth” in the context of science.

So Harris is proposing that we change our priorities. They should change in pretty much the same way our ancestors’ linguistic, political, and intellectual practices changed to affirm the scientific character and universal value of health.

Why change? Because it will allow us to better collaborate on the things we already care about most. Again, why should we prize health in general, as opposed to caring specifically about the health of certain groups of people, or certain body parts? Why not have medicine focus disproportionately on our right legs, disregarding our left legs almost completely? Well, I suppose there are no unconditional, metaphysically fundamental reasons to value health in general, or to build sciences and social institutions dedicated to understanding and improving it. But it’s simpler that way, and it benefits us both individually and collectively, so… why not?

Valuing every experienced value, in proportion to its intensity and frequency, is egalitarian in spirit. Practically democratic. That doesn’t make it ‘objective’ in any mysterious cosmic sense. But it does make it an extraordinarily useful Schelling point, a slightly arbitrary but stable and fair-minded convention for resolving disputes.

Of course, if we just think of it as an arbitrary convention, without ascribing it any importance — if we ‘mere‘ it — then the whole point of the convention will be lost. If no one had any respect for democracy, democracy would dissolve overnight. It may be very important for the practice of valuing value that we adopt moral realism or consequentialism as an absolute law, even if the justification for doing so isn’t so much philosophical first principles or linguistic definitions as our lived, pragmatic concern for our own and others’ actual welfare. Good conventions save lives.

It’s because we do in fact have conflicting desires that it’s important to have a general framework for resolving disputes, and Harris’ is a surprisingly flexible yet sturdy one. On Harris’ view, we do factor values like nepotism and egoism into our calculus, and try to help even sociopaths live a joyful, fulfilling, beautiful life — within limits.

What limits? Simply that it come at no cost to everyone’s joy, fulfillment, and beauty. In that respect, the system is more fair than a democracy, since unpopular values get equal weight; and at the same time less exploitable than one, since that weight is determined by psychological fact, not by popular opinion.

So most malign values are quelched or stymied not because they’re intrinsically Evil but because they don’t scale well. They don’t interact in such a way that they form sustainable ecosystems of positively valenced experience. On Harris’ view, we shouldn’t block or assist sadists and war criminals merely because it pre-reflectively ‘feels righteous’ to do so; for our sense of righteousness can go horribly astray. Rather, we should do so because an ecumenical ‘value all values’ project demands it, and because abandoning this meta-value means abandoning our best hope for fully general cooperation between sentients.

What’s on the table is less a moral theory than a humanitarian superproject. Harris reinterprets our language of ‘ought’ and ‘should’ not with the goal of solving Kantian paradoxes but with the goal of defining and motivating a long-term civilizational research program, all while bringing our intellectual drives and traditions into a more intimate conversation with our moral drives and traditions, at the individual as well as the societal scale.

Why call this ‘morality’?

For a person who wrote a book about meta-ethics, Harris is remarkably unconcerned with meta-ethics. He takes note of it only to do a bit of conceptual and rhetorical tidying up. At all times, his sights remain firmly fixed on applied ethics, on politics, on, well, real life.

[T]he fact that millions of people use the term “morality” as a synonym for religious dogmatism, racism, sexism, or other failures of insight and compassion should not oblige us to merely accept their terminology until the end of time.

But if there’s real disagreement here, why speak in terms of ‘ought’ and ‘bad’ at all?

The problem isn’t that those are univocal, clearly-defined terms whose entrenched meanings Harris is flouting. The more realistic worry, rather, is that they’re horribly confused terms with only a limited amount of consistency within and across linguistic communities. Folk morality is a mess. Heck, academic morality is a mess. And folk meta-ethics and folk normative ethics (and their academic counterparts) are particularly confused and divergent — far more so than object-level morality. So if Harris’ goal is to inject some clarity and points of basic consensus into this conceptual cacophony, why enter the fray we call ‘ethics’, with its centuries of accumulated obscurity, at all? Why not just invent a new set of terms for what he has in mind, like ‘flought’ and ‘flad’? Then, stipulatively, we could have our flobligation cake and eat it too. If he did that, you can be sure that you’d see fewer people treating ‘but you’re just defining morality as “the maximization of well-being”‘ as an objection.

Although it’s tempting to reboot ethics and start over with a clean slate, I think that the risks should we completely forsake the moral conversation are too dire. Moral language is just a language. (What’s ethical remains ethical, whether we call it ‘ethical’ or ‘flethical’, or ‘unethical’, or ‘linoleum’.) But language matters. Our intuitions are language-shaped. Even if we say that ‘florality’ or ‘neuro-eudaimonics‘ is far more humanly important and conceptually deep than traditional ‘morality’, people raised on the ‘morality’ lexicon will still reliably misconstrue how high the stakes are, misconstrue even their own preferences, if we toss out moral language.

Many [highly educated men and women …] claim that a scientific foundation for morality would serve no purpose in any case. They think we can combat human evil all the while knowing that our notions of “good” and “evil” are completely unwarranted. It is always amusing when the same people then hesitate to condemn specific instances of patently abominable behavior. I don’t think one has fully enjoyed the life of the mind until one has seen a celebrated scholar defend the “contextual” legitimacy of the burqa, or of female genital mutilation, a mere thirty seconds after announcing that mortal relativism does nothing to diminish a person’s commitment to making the world a better place.

Moreover, our traditional talk of goodness and badness has some very useful features, like its correlation with our deepest concerns and its built-in universality. Certainly we could redefine morality in, say, egoist terms. ‘Justice’ and ‘ought’ could be made to refer to the speaker’s interests, as opposed to the overall interests of sentient beings. But then it would be less useful as a language, since the meanings of the terms would vary from person to person, like pronouns do, and since we already have adequate ways to express personal preferences.

Ethical discourse is our only established way to concisely refer to aggregate preference satisfaction. So streamlining the expression-conditions of this discourse, stripping it of the parochial or metaphysically dubious associations it has in certain linguistic communities, may be a very valuable project if we have a sufficiently important candidate meaning to adopt. Harris thinks that psychological well-being meets that condition.

I’ve emphasized the revisionary nature of Harris’ project, because I want to make it clear why objections like Craig’s are beside the point. Harris’ goal is to provide a framework for thinking and talking clearly about humanity’s most important (i.e., most widely and deeply valued) problems and possibilities. His goal isn’t to provide a novel theory that can ground all our naïve normative intuitions, ordinary prescriptive language, or sophisticated ethical theories, because he thinks that all three of these are frequently useless, internally inconsistent, even outright contentless.

Everyone has an intuitive “physics,” but much of our intuitive physics is wrong (with respect to the goal of describing the behavior of matter). Only physicists have a deep understanding of the laws that govern the behavior of matter in our universe. I am arguing that everyone also has an intuitive “morality,” but much of our intuitive morality is clearly wrong (with respect to the goal of maximizing personal and collective well-being).

At the same time, I don’t want to suggest that Harris’ framework is all that ethically novel or strange. We really do care with unparalleled ferocity about suffering, rapture, beauty, tranquility, and all the other qualities of experience Harris is interested in. And our everyday moral intuitions and conventions really do orbit the distribution of extreme forms of these experiences.

My qualification is that that’s a contingent fact, and it’s not the core reason Harris is so interested in this project. If our moral intuitions had turned out to be consistently detrimental to our psychological welfare, Harris would have advocated the destruction of morality, not its reconceptualization! But, for all that, the conservatism of Harris’ proposal is very much worth keeping in mind. If nothing else, it shows that Harris’ project isn’t as difficult as it might seem. All we need is a small but vocal pool of intellectuals and public figures on our side, just large enough to reverse the current cultural trend towards blind relativism and lame nihilism.

Harris’ aim, then, isn’t to give a fully general semantic theory of what the word ‘good’ means in English, or to provide metaphysical truth-conditions for all our intuitive judgments. It’s to recommend a simple framework for collaborating on issues of deep humanistic import. It’s to repurpose an increasingly unproductive discourse to express the urgency of scientifically inquiring into the nature of anything and everything that matters to us. And then actually doing something about it.

Regimenting our concept of “morality” with simplicity will make it easy to teach and explain the value of value, regimenting it with elegance will make it easy to theoretically and pragmatically defend the value of value, and regimenting it with egalitarianism will ensure that we do not disregard any of the core concerns of any of the beings capable of having concerns. If Harris’ own proposal is not ideal for this aim, still it seems clear that something has to fill the void that is modern ethical thought, lest this void continue to encroach upon the things we love.

Further reading: