A thought-experiment concerning explanation and metaethics.
One radical result of Selection Theory (see previous post here) is the dissolution of the fact/value distinction. This distinction has plagued modern philosophy since its birth. However, reasoning from fact to values is not a category mistake per se; it’s just a problem shared by many philosophies other than Selection Theory. However, the fact-value distinction is not a problem with all non-Western and all pre-modern philosophy. To explain how this can be, let us embark on the following thought experiment:
Science in a “Creationist World”
Let’s imagine a Creationist World (CW), where some rational agent called “God” made everything. In CW, the ultimate explanation for everything about the human race leads back to one first principle: God. In this world we could ask: “Why are there many races, cultures, and languages in this world?” The answer is: “Because God wanted there to be many different humans.” Likewise for other questions; “Why are there two sexes and not one or three?”, “Why are there three spatial dimensions?” In this fictional world, all questions would end up being answered ultimately by “God”, and this would include questions of physics and biology. The division of faith and reason would be different in the Fictional World, and science would perhaps be a sub-field of theology.
Even from an atheistic perspective, it’s in principle possible to create a universe or even a multiverse by intelligent design. Anyway, here we shall imagine that we have a world where all rational beings were created by some “God”. Furthermore, this God’s whole purpose in creating them has something to do with ethics. In CW, we know for sure that CW was created specifically for the purpose of generating a large population of ethical subjects, giving them a set of Ethical Laws to obey or disobey, recording and evaluating the results, and then upon death uploading their minds into God’s Big Server (“Heaven”) where they will be categorized and stored for other purposes which humans cannot comprehend. We don’t have to understand why God is doing this in this thought experiment. We know he exists and He has revealed His desires to us, so the Euthyphro dilemma is not a problem for CWT. All we need to know is that the ultimate purpose for the Universe is the exercise of ethical agency (“Free Will”), and for the final tabulation/evaluation of ethical decisions (“The Day of Judgement”). So the key thing to know is that CW has a proven theory which explains what ethics is, how ethics came to be, and what ethics is “for” (in Aristotle, the “final cause”). It also turns out that this CWT is useful for clarifying certain ambiguities and questions of application of the Ethical Law; since we know what ethics is for, we have a set of principles for resolving any difficulties concerning ethics that may arise.
God as the “Arkhe“
The role that we have assigned God in the above argument is what the Greeks called the “Arkhe“, which means “the first principle” that all explanations necessarily must lead back to or be based on. The idea of an Arkhe is clearly common to both philosophy, science, ethics, religion and politics. It is the subject matter of not only philosophers but also the Prophets, Saints and Sages the world over. They have tried to refer all explanations (of both facts and values alike) back to a common source, and humans tend to accept that this is valid. Humans clearly make a distinction between values which are valid and those which are not, even those humans who claim to believe in a “fact-value distinction”. In a future work, we shall focus on G’ E’ Moore’s “Open Question” argument, which is the most subtle and popular defence of the fact/value distinction in ethical theory. But here we shall show that this distinction is dubious by reference to the Arkhe and its relations to ethics. The role of the “Arkhe” is here taken by God, and it follows from the fact that God is the Arkhe that His will determines which Values are true, and thus bridges the fact-value distinction.
After the idea of Ethical Telos is illustrated by the example of God in the CW and CWT, this opens the way for naturalistic value theory. Because in the real world nature is the Arkhe.
The Case of the “Value-Atheist”
But let’s say that in this world we have some ignorant Dogmatic Atheists. In spite of the existence of a well-founded theory that explains physics, biology and ethics in a set of parsimonious and coherent laws, there are a few ‘irreligious extremists’ who refuse to ‘believe in’ God. I put ‘believe in’ in quotes because CW atheists are different from atheists in our world. In CW, there are very few people who think that God does not exist (‘metaphysical atheists’) , since God has been proven to exist by secular CW cosmology and biology. In CW, atheists tend to believe that even though a God exists, this God has no right to boss us around with his so-called ‘Moral Law’. We shall call these atheists ‘axiological atheists’ (or ‘AA’); they might say that “Sure God made us, but who is He to force us to suffer and die for no good reason? I never voted him God! He might send me to Hell for saying this, but that would just be yet another wrong done to humanity by God. Just because God can enforce his so-called ‘laws’ does not make him right. After all, you can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. That would be the naturalistic fallacy.”
So my question for you is this- does the CW atheist have any ground to stand on, or is he merely using words (such as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’) in a way that ignores their ‘real’ meaning? ( I mean ‘real’ in CW, not real in our world.) When the CW theist (CWT) uses ethical terms, these terms can be ‘cashed out’ in CW reality, can have truth values, are provable, and have practical results (what I call “empirical meaning”). But what about the AA? What does ethics mean for him? Basically, he is not completely without a basis, since he is using the God’s Moral Law as premises in his arguments, but he is using them wrongly, in a way that ignores the context of the Ethical Telos in CWT. This is against CW’s well-founded scientific theories which explain everything in CW and CW itself. So basically this the “Axiological Atheist” is saying that the fact that he does not like God is more valid than all of CW-human science put together. (Kind of like how people say that they do not like evolutionary ethics in our world.)
Does the AA have anything to say for himself? Not much, He can call the CWTs ‘reductionists’, since they try to ‘reduce’ value statements to factual statements. But the application of this label only seems compelling to people who have an ethics without any basis in fact. It’s hard to see how you can ‘explain’ anything at all without ‘reducing’ it to something else. Since Aristotle, ‘explanation’ has come to mean ‘to subsume a particular under a wider universal’, with said universal being agreed upon by all or most of those who would know. In rejecting what he calls ‘reductionism’, in this way, the AA has also rejected the basis of all explanation.
My point here is that if we have a well-founded theory about the origin of ethical beings, the purpose of ethics, the conditions for the survival of ethical beings, and rules for the change of ethical cultures over time, explanation for why people find certain things ethical or not (like Jonathan Haidt’s moral psychology), then we know what ethics “is”. Some of us might not like it, but they are in the same situation as the axiological atheist; they ultimately (by ‘ultimately’ I mean ‘in philosophy or science’ (or strictly speaking “from the perspective of the Arkhe“) have no right to use ethical concepts in any way that cannot be cashed out in terms of our world’s scientific theory, whether this theory is CWT (in Creation World) or whether it is based on Evolutionary Game Theory, as in our world.
In every sense, CWT and actual Natural Science play the same role in their respective worlds, and those who claim that ethics is somehow exempt from rational principles are in the same philosophical predicament in both worlds.
I’m aware that being “anti-science” in the sense I am using here. (refusal to accept science as normative) has significant adaptive potential, something which I believe explains the real-world existence of ‘axiological theism’ w.r.t evolutionary theories of ethics. Basically the ultimate principle of axiological a/theism is ‘I don’t like how ethics actually is, and it seems hard to imagine that I would dislike what is right and ethical.’ To which we answer: “You’re not the only person who cannot imagine that they are wrong. However, you cannot overthrow all of established scientific theory, and thus we can only consider you wrong. Your beliefs have no basis in an well-established over-arching theory that defines the realm of ethical beings.”
What are ethical beings with respect to the merely natural?
For Selection Theory, ethical beings are a subset of the realm of animals (beings with sensation and movement), which are a subset of the realm of living beings (which undergo Darwinian evolution), which is a subset of physical beings ( which undergo change over time and space ). Thus ethical beings inherit many attributes from higher genera, and ethics can be seen from a real context that provides its arkhe. In this context, we can define ethical beings most simply as “animals having language” or “political animals”. These two definitions are functionally identical; they both imply that the human survival strategy is implemented in a social structure implemented with language. In short, this means we have a ‘multiagent system’ as opposed to a single-agent system such as we find in a “hive mind”.
The advantage of a hive-mind are clear for insects, since each individual in the hive is not intelligent at all, but together they can accomplish much. Humans gain a similar advantage from their cultural storage of knowledge, but the freedom of mind typical of a human society means that we are ‘historical beings’. Eusocial hive minds are static; they have been around for millions of years and yet have much the same survival strategies and ecological niches now as they did in previous epochs. Humans are dynamic in occupying new niches and developing new strategies; this is the hallmark of increased fitness from an evolutionary standpoint. This means that humans are objectively ‘better’ and that human political structures are ‘better’ because they demonstrate more innovation while maintaining sustainability over the long run . Of course, even if we grant this point there is much to argue about which version of modern civilization embodies evolutionary values the most, but at least we have the outlines for putting our ethical and political debates on a solid theoretical footing, without having to worry out people pulling ‘oughts’ out of some wormhole. Instead, they will be ‘reduced’ to starting with some statement of fact or a counterfactual framed in terms of a well-established scientific theory. This latter choice is the basis for evolutionary ethics.
For a further treatment of this ontology, check out my other posts, especially:here . Enjoy!
Further issues with the theory
The “Open Question” Argument – There is a more refined argument for the fact/value distinction that I have not yet dealt with: G’ E’ Moore’s “Open Question” argument, which is what most professional philosophers will bring up against Evolutionary Ethics. Against this I have dedicated an article found here.. [Upcoming!]
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