Saturday, 28 September 2013

Multiple axes of morality

I have, in the not too distant past, engaged in a long rambling discussion with a theist on the topic of William Lane Craig’s argument from morality.  Much of this argument has centred (in fuzzy sort of way) on the nature of morality – specifically on the question of moral objectivity.

For the atheists engaged in this discussion, the core problem we encountered is an inability or unwillingness on the part of the theist (LNC) to comprehensively define what “objective” means and then stick to that definition.  As a consequence of wrestling with this issue, it occurred to me that there is more than one “axis of morality”.  I’ll try to explain.

LNC insisted on discussing “objective morality” as if it lay on one axis, as illustrated below:

I'm being a little inaccurate here.  Let me try again.  LNC's axis of morality looks a bit more like this:

Occasionally LNC would resort to some bizarre grammatical version of moral nomenclature, claiming that if you make a moral statement concerning the subject of a clause, then you are being a subjectivist but from the vast bulk of his communication it is quite clear that he’s comparing moral objectivism with moral relativism.  In The Problem with Sam, I touched on why some are loathe to be labelled as moral relativists, and it appears that LNC is similarly loathe to be labelled as a moral absolutist, despite the fact that his discussions certainly indicate that he is in fact a moral absolutist.

The thing is, the opposite of “objective” is not “relative” but rather “subjective”.  And the opposite of “relative” is “absolute”.  This gives us two axes:

I’m going to allow for the possibility that there is a sliding scale on the axes, rather than just the two extremes.  I’m not claiming that moral values with respect to an issue can actually be a little bit absolute, although I’m not rejecting the notion out of hand.  What is more possible is that a moral system could comprise of some elements that are absolute and some elements that are relative and that an individual’s mix would thus be graduated.

Once we accept the idea of multiple moral axes, the question is then “how many and what might they be?”

Here is my suggestion:

I’ll briefly sketch out what I mean by each axis.


An objective position is such that no matter who makes the determination, the result will be the same.  An example is the measurement of a weight using a standard set of scales.  Fifty kilograms on the scales will be measured as 50kg no matter who is doing the measuring.  A subjective position is based on personal circumstances or opinions.  A strong person when bench pressing 50kg may consider that a light weight, while light weights such as myself will think it is far too heavy to deal with for more than a few minutes (if we can manage that).

An objective moral judgment could be made on the basis of how much harm is caused by alternative options (smacking a child does more harm than good, based on the levels of pain experienced by the child, therefore smacking a child is morally wrong).

A subjective moral judgment could be based on no more than opinion (illegal immigrants are parasites on civilised society, therefore shooting them when they try to cross the border is morally right).


An absolute determination is invariant whereas a relative determination varies with context.  Say we were wondering around with a lux meter measuring the light levels on an airplane.  We find that the lighting from a globe in the galley and from an indicator light in the cockpit is 60 lux.  This is an absolute measurement (I know, it’s only absolute-ish, but I’m trying to give an analogy here).  However, in the galley the globe is too dim (since the rest of the plane would be at about 250-400 lux) and the indicator in the cockpit is too bright (since it cannot be blinding at night when something like 2-5 lux would be appropriate).

Absolute moral judgments are based on obedience to some moral law or “moral fact” which does not vary (the Bible says not to lie, therefore lying is always morally wrong).

Relative moral judgments are made in a context and can vary (exposing one’s midriff in Australia was morally unacceptable in the 1940s but is fine today, but it is still morally unacceptable in Saudi Arabia).


By the real-imaginary axis, I mean as in the difference between Balto (the Siberian husky that was the lead dog on the team that brought diphtheria antitoxin to Nome, Alaska in 1925) and Boris the talking Snow Goose in the film Balto (in which the eponymous character is transformed into a talking hybrid Siberian husky/white wolf).  One of the two is made up.

Real in terms of morality relates to the idea of Platonically real moral values, being moral values that are somehow integral to the universe.  Such moral values would not necessarily be absolute, even though I suspect that if they existed they would.  It is possible that our interaction with “Platonically real moral values” would be contextual and thus relative.

Imaginary, on the other hand, refers to the idea that some people think that “Platonically real moral values” exist, and others of us don’t.  We think that the idea of “Platonically real moral values” is made up – although we might not think that moral values themselves are made up …


The natural-artificial axis could also be considered as a real-artificial axis, since the word “real” confusingly has more than one meaning.  I am referring here to the idea that morality could have evolved naturally, or it could have been imposed artificially.  For example, a man in a tent could have sat down and wrote a long list of moral rules off the top of his head.  These would be “artificial”.  On the other hand, you could have the natural moral rules that emerge out of an imperative to survive.


This is getting a bit more esoteric and could be covered by other axes, but with this axis I am trying to point out that the man in the tent mentioned above could have just written down “ a bunch of crazy shit” or he could have thought it all through carefully.  Take a look at Deuteronomy some time to see which approach Moses took.


This one is especially for LNC.  He seems convinced that consistency is essential in morality.  I think we all agree about that.  What we don’t agree about is who is being consistent and who is being inconsistent.

Consistency in morality would mean that, for example, if being raped in the city is wrong then being raped in the country would be equally wrong.  Inconsistency would mean treating the two cases differently and stoning to death different people depending on where the rape occurred (good old Deuteronomy).


With this axis I am making reference to the idea that there are people who see things in terms of black and white (see the second image above) and there are others who perceive a vivid spectrum – or at least distinguish shades of grey.  If when asked “is lying wrong?” you respond with “Yes!” then you are a simplex sort of person.  The rest of us will likely say something beginning with “Well, it depends …”


This is another one included for the benefit of people like LNC and it’s very much about the practical application of morality.  There are two extremes when it comes to moralists, those who are implacable in the application of their morality (think of Inspector Javert in Les Misérables ) and those who are more flexible (think of the Bishop of Digne who absolves Jean Valjean and “buys” his soul for god).  If you can put aside your petty morality in order to strive towards a “higher goal” of some sort, you are a flexible type.  If you think that you can’t (perhaps because you mistake your petty morality for some higher morality), then you are an implacable type.

I’m completely open to the idea of adding more axes or combining some.  Any thoughts?

Friday, 20 September 2013

Random Will

I want to approach the idea of “free will” from a slightly different direction.

If the universe is entirely deterministic, there is no free will because our actions are merely the consequence of our interactions with our environment.  Presented again with precisely the same environment, our brains would go through exactly the same processes and we would make the same decisions, take the same actions and think the same thoughts.

If the universe is entirely random (and therefore entirely indeterminate), then there is no free will either.  There would be little, if any, causal relationship between action and reaction in a random universe.  Presented again with precisely the same environment, our brains would likely react in a vastly different way.  However, integral to the concept of free will is the idea that there is some degree of constancy in our thoughts and behaviour.

Could a partly random, partly deterministic universe lead to a sense of free will?

Consider a variation of an old style pin-board game as illustrated below.

In a world of perfection, with the balls lined up perfectly above the outputs and the pins aligned perfectly, we would see a ball released through an input slot fall perfectly into the corresponding output slot.

This would be a simple deterministic system, from which the end state could be confidently predicted by the rather simple initial conditions.

However, this presumes that there are no additional factors involved – no unequal friction conferred by the input slot, no spin on the ball, no imperfections on the board – that would result in the balls touching any of the pins.

If we allow these sorts of imperfections, we would have a much more rich and complex sort of deterministic system – one in which the end state can be confidently predicted, so long as one took into account all factors.  Perhaps we were to release a ball through the Input One slot, knowing that there is a slight imperfection in the weight of the ball, that the original orientation of the ball and the resultant friction will cause a spin that would cause the ball to hit the left most pin with the right force to cause it to bounce into the gap between the second and third pins.  We might calculate that the ball will bounce between these two pins in such a way as to pass relatively cleanly into Output Two.

So long as the full range of initial conditions remains the same, we will get the same result every time.

But what happens if we don’t assume unchanging initial conditions?  Continually dropping balls onto pins will lead to them bending to some extent and the surface of the balls will be affected by repeated interaction with the pins.  The board will wear and friction will act on the input slot.

Even if we allow for these effects, we still have a deterministic system – we can at least conceptually work out the effect of the interactions between balls and pins, pins and balls, balls and slots and balls and boards, so on and so forth.  Once we have factored these in we can still calculate, from our initial conditions, the result from each drop of the ball.  The calculation has not become impossible – it has just become more complex.

We could add yet another layer of complexity by incorporating some logic into the system.  See the illustration below.

Now all the pins are attached to rods which can be moved by the control boxes on the right hand side.  The movement will be in response to indications from sensors on each pin (with the signals conveniently sent to the control boxes via wiring within the rods).  Basically, when hit, each pin will send a message which the control box will interpret as “Pin X got hit” and the control box will active a response based on command statement like “When Pin X gets hit, perform Action Y”.

Again, if we know the full range of these command statements along with the full range of initial conditions and the effects of each component on all other components (ie deformation of the ball and pins, wear and so on), we can calculate the result from each drop of the ball.  Our system remains deterministic, complex but nevertheless deterministic.

We could add more levels of complexity having more inputs, more outputs, more pins, more levels, more control boxes, more complex command statements and so on.  But we still don’t get away from a deterministic system.

However, if we zoomed in and looked at all the components at subatomic level, we would start encountering the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.  Occasionally, a ball will pass so close to a pin that sometimes it will hit and sometimes it won’t – even if the path is precisely the same – because of the configuration of electrons in the outer layer of the pin.

Or does it?

If you’ve agreed that the system as described is entirely deterministic, then you’ve been thinking classically (or you had in mind what can be referred to as a "manifest image").  To you, the ball was solid like one indivisible particle.  The pins were solid like indivisible, strangely shaped particles.  But we know that’s not the case.  Not even atoms are indivisible particles.  We won’t, however, go beyond the standard subatomic particles (electrons, protons and neutrons) because it starts getting really strange.

The system as illustrated seems rather simple but there is another implicit assumption – that the ball is sized somewhere between a pea and a grapefruit.  I doubt that anyone had thought that it could be a Buckyball (but bonus points to you if you did) or representative of a molecule of water.  At these scales, the movement and location of individual sub-atomic particles could have considerable impact on the outcomes.  Putting Heisenberg aside for a moment, we could still conceptually collect all the data and still work out the outcome, if we could just have all the starting conditions (and a sufficiently good understand of how all the subcomponents interact).

Now, everything we’ve discussed explicitly so far has been inside the system.  But in the real world things outside the system can effect what goes on inside the system.  We’ve totally ignored it up until now, but the force pulling the balls down does not originate in the system.  We’ve assumed gravity.  We’ve also assumed that the effect of gravity is constant within the system and that there are no other effects at play (such as barometric pressure, the coriolis effect or uneven thermal heating effects on the system).

If we no longer make these assumptions then, to understand the system, we need to include data about the outside world in our calculations.

Now, let’s say our illustration is a vast simplification of the real system, which has many thousands of pins, hundreds of possible input slots and hundreds of possible output slots.  There are also hundreds of control boxes.  Add in a history keeping system and say that the control boxes are pre-programmed with the intent of guiding a ball that enters via a specific input slot exits via the “correct” output slot.

Now if we watch the board when a ball is entered, the control boxes will do their thing, responding to each cry of “ouch, I got hit” by various pins by moving the rods around and gently shepherding the ball towards the correct slot.

Imagine that a few minutes ago, a high-energy particle burst out of the sun and hurtled along a path towards this pin-ball system.  When it enters the system, it interacts with a single pin which, despite not being hit by a ball, yells “ouch, I got hit”.

The control boxes react as they must (remember they are pre-programmed) to that cry and the rods are rearranged accordingly.

Now, unless we included the sun (and every other potential source of high-energy particles) into our calculations, the path of the ball through the system is no longer entirely predictable.  The system will continue to act as it always did, deterministically, responding to pins being hit (or at least saying that they were hit) with the balls and the pins reacting in an entirely deterministic way – but from time to time, the system will appear to have made a decision, to have an output which is not strictly related to the (apparent) input, to have expressed “free will”.

Now, replace the pin-ball system with something far less simple to model, the human brain, which consists of billions of neurons interacting with each other.

Anyone for godless free will?

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Greek resurrection

One of William Lane Craig’s handful of constantly repeated arguments is presented most clearly in his debate with Bart Ehrman:

Fact #4: The original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their having every predisposition to the contrary.

Think of the situation the disciples faced following Jesus’ crucifixion:

1. Their leader was dead.

And Jewish Messianic expectations had no idea of a Messiah who, instead of triumphing over Israel’s enemies, would be shamefully executed by them as a criminal.

2. Jewish beliefs about the afterlife precluded anyone’s rising from the dead to glory and immortality before the general resurrection of the dead at the end of the world.

Nevertheless, the original disciples suddenly came to believe so strongly that God had raised Jesus from the dead that they were willing to die for the truth of that belief. But then the obvious question arises: What in the world caused them to believe such an un-Jewish and outlandish thing?

Craig rams home, repeatedly, the claim that the resurrection belief inherent in the latter gospels (Matthew, Luke and John, remembering that Mark has been appended with the resurrection story) is not a Jewish type of belief.

Okay, I think that we can accept that that may be the case (without necessarily accepting Craig’s Argument from Resurrection).

However, it should be noted that all the relevant documents New Testament are written in Greek.  Think about this for a moment.  The lingua franca of the Roman Empire was Greek and relatively recent historical findings indicate that Greek was a commonly spoken second language in ancient Judea.  And with an invading Empire comes their culture, including their mythology and history.

We should, therefore, not only be asking whether resurrection is a Jewish idea but also whether it could be an ancient Greco-Roman idea.

Guess what!  When you look at Greek mythology, you find that resurrections are not so unfamiliar.

Asclepius is resurrected by Zeus.  Achilles is resurrected by Thetis (who wasn’t even a major god). Heracles is resurrected by Zeus.

Even more interestingly, there is a semi-mythical chap from the seventh century BCE mentioned by Herodotus who 1) was a miracle worker 2) died 3) had his body disappear mysteriously from a locked room and 4) was resurrected and made immortal.  Not only that, his resurrection was attested by someone who claimed to have met him on a road.

Now, I am not saying that the history of Aristeas as related by Herodotus is true.  What I am suggesting is that if we have a person who can write Greek in the first century CE, that person is going to be familiar with both Greek history (such as it was) and Greek mythology.  Furthermore, when Paul (apostle to the gentiles) wants to spread the word of this new religion that he has adopted, he is going to be aware of the fact that his product has to be at least as good as what is currently available in the market place.

Zeus does resurrections, so Paul’s god has to do at least one resurrection.  The demi-god Heracles was resurrected and Aristeas was resurrected, so Jesus has to be resurrected.

Simply stated, if Jesus was not reported to have been resurrected, then the religion would not have gained any purchase.

This is not, in itself, evidence that it is totally impossible that there was a person called Jesus who was crucified until fully dead, who was placed in a crypt from which he somehow escaped and who then appeared to various people before shooting up into the sky until hidden in a cloud (according to precisely one scriptural witness - Luke).

What it is instead is evidence of an alternative explanation.  So long as we have an explanation which does not require the supernatural, and there need only be one, we are not forced by Craig – or any other apologist – to accept the premise that the only explanation for early Christianity is a bona fide resurrection.

There are other explanations, so Craig’s ignorance is dissipated and his Argument from Resurrection fails on this basis.