Friday, 28 June 2013

WLC As a Bunny

I was searching for material for my article on Scientism and I came across something from our old pal, WLC.  On his website, Reasonable Faith, he has a number of podcasts including one titled “Proofs for God, Foreknowlege, and Scientism”.  You can listen to it in entirety if you like, but I just want to point out his hilarious bunny argument.

It starts at about half-way through, with a question at 9:51.

Kev the Lackey:

‘K, let’s jump to the ontological argument.  Buckle your seatbelt: 

Dr. Craig, listening to your Defenders’ class on the ontological argument, you responded to the following objection ‘Isn’t it intuitive that there’s a possible world in which a maximally great being wouldn’t exist?  Say a world in which the only creatures that exist are tortured rabbits?’ 

Your response seemed to parry this objecting by saying that, given that God exists, that his existence constrains the type of worlds that are possible and that it is intuitive that a maximally great being wouldn’t exist in such a world.  This world turns out to be metaphysically impossible. 

While the objection holds a premise of the argument, and thus the argument’s success in question, doesn’t this response assume the argument’s conclusion, namely that God exists?


No, not at all.  It doesn’t assume that God exists.  What it assumes is that God is possible.

The person who thinks that it’s possible that there is a world in which the highest life-form are rabbits that are unremittingly tortured and suffering with no redemption is assuming that it’s impossible that a maximally great being exists.  So the assumption that that rabbit world is a possible world, I think, is parasitic upon the assumption that the first premise of the ontological argument is false, that it is possible that a maximally great being exists.  So, it doesn’t assume that God exists, to say that that other world is not really metaphysically possible.  Rather it is to say that if God’s existence is possible, as it seems to be, then that other world is not really a possible world.  It’s just a product of human imagination.  We can imagine things but that doesn’t mean that they're really possible.

I can imagine, for example, a world in which things pop into being without causes.  I can picture in my mind a world in which horses, and eskimos, and rabbits are popping into being without any cause.  I can have that mental picture in my mind but that doesn’t mean that’s really a metaphysically possible world.  I would say that such a world is actually impossible so, while I can imagine such a world, that does not mean the world is truly conceivable and therefore logically, or metaphysically, possible.

Kev the Lackey:

Did someone in Defenders’ class ask you isn’t it intuitive that there is a possible world in which a maximally great being wouldn’t exist?


Yes, that was in the Defenders’ class, I think it was Bob, a class raised this issue.  I think I may have used the example of the world of rabbits, which I got from Tom Morris in his book Anselmian Explorations, ah, that would be an example of, of a world that God would not, not create.  I guess that’s what might be the, ah, assumption here, Kevin that I need to make explicit.

The, the assumption here is that a maximally great being wouldn’t actualize a world like that …

Kev the Lackey:

Ok …


… and so, it’s really metaphysically impossible, given the existence of a maximally great being.

Kev the Lackey:

Well see, in, because the ontological argument would present that there is no possible world in which maximally great being would not exist …


Right.  That’s why this world would, is not a real possible world …

Kev the Lackey:

Because of the rabbits or because of the being?


Because, a maximally great being would not create a world in which the highest life-form are rabbits that exist in unremitting (sic) suffering.  That’s incompatible with his goodness.

Kev the Lackey:

Right. (sounding a little unconvinced)


So a maximally great being would not create such a world.  So, if there is such a possible world, it follows that there is no maximally great being.  And so, the objection is correct, I think, that we can imagine possible worlds in our minds, we can imagine this world of suffering rabbits, that are incompatible with the existence of a maximally great being.

But, are those really possible worlds, or are they just products of the imagination like worlds in which things pop into existence uncaused?  And what I’m suggesting is, is that to think that that is a possible world is to assume that it is impossible for a maximally great being to exist.  It is to assume that the first premise of the argument is false.

Kev the Lackey:

‘K (still sounding somewhat unconvinced)


So, after all of that fancy dancing, WLC is left saying something that the questioner said, the first premise is held to be in question.  But although he never says it explicitly, WLC seems to be claiming that these two premises are not equal in validity:

It is possible that a maximally great being exists.
It is possible that there is a world in which rabbits are unremittingly tortured.

What he says far more explicitly is that they are mutually incompatible, ergo:

If it is possible that there is a world in which rabbits are unremittingly tortured, then it is not possible that a maximally great being exists
If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then it is not possible that there is a world in which rabbits are unremittingly tortured.

Ok, that is fair enough.  However, you take this just one tiny step further and say that we won’t just consider rabbits.  We could consider, for simplicity, four other species: cats, dogs, squirrels and ferrets.

The problem that WLC will face here is that is a mutual incompatibility between the possible existence of his god and the possible existence of a world in which any species of animal is unremittingly tortured.  There is no mutual incompatibility between the possible existence of a world of unremittingly tortured rabbits and the possible existence of a world of unremittingly tortured ferrets.
Therefore, before you can even begin to consider the possibility of a maximally great being, you have to eliminate the possibility of any world in which any species of animal, or any combination of various species of animal, is unremittingly tortured, or tortured more than some acceptable proportion of the time, or prevented from breeding perhaps, or any one of a number of things that could be considered cruel or otherwise not in accordance with a maximally great being’s goodness.

The easiest way for WLC to get around this problem is to just assume God and apply the following logic:

If God, then God.


Therefore, God.



Of course WLC has, with his little rabbit-proof objection, managed to lie and dissemble.

It was a little way into the session that he admitted that it was he himself who raised the example of the world of bunnies.  The fact that it was Craig who raised the objection explains why it’s so toothless.  And it is indeed toothless in a very fundamental way, despite my protestations above.

Every single possible world in which there is some species or combination of species being unremittedly tortured has an implied immaterial, uncaused, personal great being.  Look at the phrasing of the objection again, specifically Craig’s phrasing:

The person who thinks that it’s possible that there is a world in which the highest life-form are rabbits that are unremittingly tortured and suffering with no redemption is assuming that it’s impossible that a maximally great being exists.

If the unremittingly tortured rabbits are the highest life-forms – who is unremittingly torturing them?

The implied answer is of course that there is some sort of great being in charge of torture, because it must be in charge of the universe it created, because in the minds of people like Craig (in as much as they can be said to have minds) universes must have a creator.

Think about it for a moment – a world in which the highest life-form is a rabbit.  Craig (or Tom Morris from whom Craig lifted the idea) has imagined a world like ours but without any higher life-form than a rabbit, without ever clarifying what is meant by a higher life-form.  Perhaps he means a set of creatures including the human, which are “higher life-forms” on the grounds of a larger brain. 
In any event, the rabbit evolved as part of a suite of creatures, including all the predators that provided the evolutionary pressure to develop their camouflaging coat, their underground lifestyle, their large ears, their ability to produce huge numbers of young and thus survive high levels of predation, and so on.  Strip away some of the predation and you’ll no longer have the rabbit, you’ll have another sort of animal.  Craig (via Morris) is assuming some form of directed evolution towards existent prototypes.  This directed evolution implies a director, or a creator.

Craig’s little scheme seems to have been to build himself a straw man, an argument which he planned on attacking with his keen blade of Christian logic.  This little scheme has gone awry since Craig has ended up being defeated by the straw man he created – not because the straw man is any good, but because – even in its laughable weakness – it is at least better than any of his standard arguments.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Ex-Theist Atheists

In my philosophical wanderings, I have noticed something interesting about some ex-theist atheists.

Unlike someone like me, who has never been an insider on this whole religion malarkey, an ex-theist will often retain a desire for every observed phenomenon to make sense and for there to be a relatively accessible and comprehensible answer to even the most inane questions.

The example that brought this home to me most strongly, at least in recent times, is the theory that the Gospel of Mark echoes Homer’s Odyssey.  This theory revolves around the “Mark and the Masked Man” phenomenon and the fact that, in the Odyssey, Odysseus returns home dressed as beggar and the only human to recognise him is his aged wet-nurse – not his wife, not his friends nor any of his subjects.  (Curiously enough, his old dog Argos recognised him too, despite being well over 20 years old, which is a little on the unlikely side for a neglected dog without access to modern veterinary science.)

The supporters of this theory link Jesus’ repeated efforts to hide his identity to the literary device of Odysseus’ anonymity in his own home (for this reason, let’s call them Masked Man Theorists).  This is all well and good.  Parallels can, after all, be drawn be between aspects of many Biblical stories and features that appear in other, earlier stories.  For example:

Zeus gave a sealed jar or urn (often described as a box, due to a mistranslation issue) to Pandora, the beautiful wife of Epimetheus, mother to Deucalion and a woman cursed with insatiable curiosity, and told her not to open it.  Pandora opened it, of course, releasing all the evils of mankind.

Zeus and Apollo once visited the lands of mortals in disguise, to see how things were going.  Zeus was particularly unhappy with the state of affairs that their little mission revealed and so he sent a deluge to kill everyone bar Deucalion and his family.  Interestingly, Deucalion built an ark.

Krishna (an avatar of Vishnu, one of a trinity of gods) was immaculately conceived when visiting the world on a mission of salvation.

Masked Man Theorists go further than noting parallels.  They say that because parallels can be observed, then they must be related in some grander narrative.  Therefore, for example, Mark was written as a (then) contemporary version of the Odyssey – in the same sense that “Brother, Where Art Thou?” is a Depression Era retelling of the same story (George Clooney as Odysseus, not Jesus).

What these ex-theist atheists seem to want to do is create a story that works for them, more specifically in this case to create a grander narrative into which the stories of the Bible can fit neatly.  Once this grander narrative is formed, they can then become as devoted to their particular theory of how and why the Bible was written as they were previously devoted to the idea that God wrote it.

On one level I understand this, if you’ve been told all your life that everything makes some form of narrative sense then it might be difficult to make the transition to a world in which much cannot be easily explained and quite a few things simply don’t make any narrative sense at all.

For the most part though, I simply can’t understand the desire to recast the Bible as cogent in some other, non-divine sense.

Surely the major contributor to abandoning a faith is the dawning realisation that whatever religion it is that you belong to is not cogent.  Isn’t it?

Why then would one wish to devote time and effort on forcing some level of cogency onto the book that is central to your ex-religion?  I can’t quite grasp why, when someone is released from the mind-lock that has them believing that the Bible is the (possibly literal) word of God, that they cannot then make the logical step to understanding that it’s no more than a collection of stories – much like any compendium of myths.

Perhaps, and this is entirely conjecture on my part, these people realise that they’ve wasted a good part of their youth, and sometimes more, on a delusion.  This tragic waste would be somehow worse if the delusion were to be founded on the basis of a totally obvious fiction (and I imagine that the fiction does become totally obvious when one reads the Gospels after the blinkers are removed – I’ve never had those particular blinkers so I’m no authority on that).  Therefore, there may be some comfort in convincing oneself that a book like the Bible is not founded on totally obvious fiction, but is instead founded on a somewhat less obvious fiction.

Maybe, for an ex-theist, the idea of having held a belief based on a commonly held miscomprehension is in some way better than having been deliberately misled.  Therefore, if the stories in the Bible were written in good faith as fiction but later misinterpreted (again in good faith) as rather bizarre fact, this would be better than to have taken the writings of a liar or madman seriously.  “We were all misled in good faith.” (And for those who have given up Divine Command Theory: “We were all good in misled faith.”)

If this is the case, then an inordinate willingness to reconstruct the Bible could be seen as an attempt to deal with the cognitive dissonance brought on by an ex-theist’s unwilling realisation that he’s been a bit of a dill.

The only consolation that I can offer anyone suffering such cognitive dissonance is that at least an ex-theist has stopped being a bit of a dill, unlike the sadly large number of others to whom the idea of recognising they’ve been a bit of a dill is enough to lock them into a false faith for eternity (or, more correctly, until the day they die).

There is another approach taken by ex-theists which is similar to that of violently ex-smokers (I’ve never been a smoker either) – with some newly minted atheists going on a crusade for their new cause, giving a modicum of credence to the occasional claim that atheists are angry at God.

I can understand why some people think that such ex-theists are angry at God, but it should be reasonably obvious that they aren’t likely to be angry at God per se.  It’s much more likely that they are angry at all the people who lied to them throughout their lives (even if the lies were told in “good faith”).  It’s no surprise to me that an ex-theist would want people who continue to spread such lies to be enlightened and/or brought to account.

Friday, 14 June 2013


I stand accused of scientism.  I’m only rarely accused of it directly, but by association I am pretty much accused on an on-going basis – via the accusations levelled at people with similar views on the world to mine.

Most of these accusations are meaningless, made by people who don’t understand science and who therefore cannot distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate applications of science.  I do, however, have a vicarious sense of indignation over the accusation of scientism levelled by Professor Ian Hutchinson, a nuclear physicist who also happens to be a theist.

I’d like to look at this accusation in a rigorous scientific way in order to ascertain whether I am in fact a “scienterrist”.  To do this I have to propose a hypothesis and test it against the evidence.

Hypothesis – neopolitan is a scienterrist

Before go any further, I should clarify my terms:

The being “neopolitan” is me, I am not talking about various misspellings of “neapolitan” or any other person who might coincidentally have the moniker “neopolitan”.

A “scienterrist” is a person who practices, holds to or can otherwise be justifiably accused of “scientism”.  The term “scienterist” is also used, but it is not as amusingly close to George W Bush’s mispronunciation of “terrorist”.

The meaning of “scientism” varies depending on who you are talking to.  We will use Hutchinson’s definition, but first let’s look at some of the other definitions.

WLC describes scientism as “the view that we should believe only what can be proven scientifically. In other words, science is the sole source of knowledge and the sole arbiter of truth”.

Humble Don uses a definition that he ascribes to WLC and JP Moreland, “the view that science is the very paradigm of truth and rationality. If something does not square with currently well-established scientific beliefs, if it is not within the domain of entities appropriate for scientific investigation, or if it is not amenable to scientific methodology, then it is not true or rational. Everything outside of science is a matter of mere belief and subjective opinion, of which rational assessment is impossible. Science, exclusively and ideally, is our model of intellectual excellence.”  As such, “there are no truths apart from scientific truths, and even if there were, there would be no reason whatever to believe them.”

In Humble Don’s own paraphrasing, scientism is held by “skeptics who appeal to the scientific method as evidence against Christianity” and “suggests that all valid knowledge must be empirically verifiable; there should be physical evidence to back it up”.

These are strong versions of scientism, effectively saying “it’s either science or it’s not true and it isn’t worth knowing”.

Michael Shermer, on the other hand, espouses a weak version of scientism, writing that scientism “is a bridge spanning the abyss between what physicist C. P. Snow famously called the ‘two cultures’ of science and the arts/humanities” and the Wikipedia entry on scientism has Shermer describing it as “a worldview that encompasses natural explanations, eschews supernatural and paranormal speculations, and embraces empiricism and reason”.  This is quite a positive definition of the term and if this was what Hutchinson meant by it, I would have to agree that I am a scienterrist by nature.

Critical definitions are not limited to apologetically inspired versions such as those crafted by the likes of WLC, Moreland and Humble Don.  To quote Wikipedia again, there are two pejorative uses of the term scientism:

  1. To indicate the improper usage of science or scientific claims.   This usage applies equally in contexts where science might not apply, such as when the topic is perceived to be beyond the scope of scientific inquiry, and in contexts where there is insufficient empirical evidence to justify a scientific conclusion. It includes an excessive deference to claims made by scientists or an uncritical eagerness to accept any result described as scientific. In this case, the term is a counterargument to appeals to scientific authority.
  2. To refer to "the belief that the methods of natural science, or the categories and things recognized in natural science, form the only proper elements in any philosophical or other inquiry," or that "science, and only science, describes the world as it is in itself, independent of perspective" with a concomitant "elimination of the psychological dimensions of experience."

While I might be overstretching myself if I were to criticise the veracity of Wikipedia, I do think that the first use of scientism is wrong.  This might be because people use the term incorrectly, of course, but the improper use of science or scientific claims is perhaps better described using reference to either pseudoscience or the formal logical fallacy “appeal to (scientific) authority”.

The second use of scientism, according to Wikipedia, seems to accord closely with the ideas of WLC, Moreland and Humble Don – although there is no mention of scientism lining up with the specific complaint that science is sometimes used to discredit the claims of Christianity.

However, since the charge of scientism was levelled by Hutchinson, we should see what he meant by the term.

Hutchinson addressed the topic at length in “Monopolizing Knowledge” and more briefly on the Biologos Forum.  In the former (quoted in the header to the latter), he defines scientism as “the belief that science, modeled on the natural sciences, is the only source of real knowledge”.  In the forum article, he describes scientism as “a philosophy of knowledge. It is an opinion about the way that knowledge can be obtained and justified. However, scientism rapidly becomes much more. It becomes an all-encompassing world-view; a perspective from which all of the questions of life are examined: a grounding presupposition or set of presuppositions which provides the framework by which the world is to be understood. In other words, it is essentially a religious position.”

O-kay … in so much as having a presupposition is a religious position, if scientism becomes a gounding presupposition or a set of presuppositions then it becomes a religious position.  Gotcha.  But let’s talk about what scientism is, rather than what Hutchinson claims that it becomes.  (I’ve already addressed the notion of the null hypothesis: the only valid presupposition is the presupposition of nothing and nothing makes for a very insubstantial framework.)

Reframing the hypotheses in light of Hutchinson’s definition of scientism:

Hypothesis – neopolitan holds that science, modelled on the natural sciences, is the only source of real knowledge

Now we need to know what “modelled on the natural sciences” means.  If you read the first instalment of Hutchinson’s contribution to the BioLogos Forum, you will note that he wishes to distinguish between two meanings of “science” – the classical understanding derived from scientia being the Latin for “knowledge” and the modern usage meaning “the study of the natural world”.  Therefore “modelled on the natural sciences” is merely a clarification that science is being used in the modern sense, not the classical sense.  Taking this under advisement, we may strike the containing clause from the hypotheses.

Hypothesis – neopolitan holds that science is the only source of real knowledge

If we skip over the word “real”, the claim that science is only source of knowledge seems implausible.  If that were the case, then the vast majority of people would know nothing and even those who use the scientific method would only know that which has been the subject of personally conducted experiments.  This would be a ridiculous claim, most likely linked to an overly zealous restriction on the use of the term “knowledge”.

However, Hutchinson is guilty of placing a restriction on the use of the term “knowledge”.  He’s talking about “real” knowledge.  We might be tempted to think of “real knowledge” as referring to knowledge about the natural world, or empirical knowledge, but then this is precisely the sort of knowledge that science, as Hutchinson defines it, deals with.  This turns his claim into “scientism is the belief that the methods by which you obtain knowledge about the natural world are the only methods by which you obtain knowledge about the natural world” – which is a sloppy form of tautology.  I’m willing to give Hutchinson more credit than that.

However, it remains unclear what Hutchinson means by “real knowledge”.  So far as I can see, he does not provide a definition – if anyone out there has seen one, please let me know.

There are, however, hints as to what Hutchinson might mean.  First, he’s a nuclear physicist so I doubt that he is restricting himself to material facts.  Second, there’s this extract from his Biologos Forum article:

Science requires reproducibility. But in many fields of human knowledge the degree of reproducibility we require in science is absent. This absence does not in my view undermine their ability to provide real knowledge. On the contrary, the whole point of my analysis is to assert that non-scientific knowledge is real and essential, just not scientific.

Sociologists today acknowledge that sociology does not offer the kind of reproducibility that is characteristic of the natural sciences. Even so, they feel they must insist on the title of science, because of the scientism of the age.

History is a field in which there is thankfully less science envy. Obviously history, more often than not, is concerned with events in the past that cannot be repeated. History is crucial knowledge but cannot be made into a science.

The study of the law (jurisprudence) is a field whose research and practice that cannot be scientific because it is not concerned with the reproducible. The circumstances of particular events cannot be subjected to repeated tests or to multiple observations.

Economics is a field of high intellectual rigor, but the absence of an opportunity for truly reproducible tests or observations and the impossibility of isolating the different components of economic systems means that economics as a discipline is qualitatively different from science.

Politics is a field, if there ever was one, that is the complete contradiction of what scientists seek in nature. It seems a great pity, and perhaps a sign of the scientism we are discussing in this series, that the academic field of study is referred to these days almost universally as Political Science.

These disciplines do not lend themselves to the epistemological techniques that underlie natural science's reliable models and convincing proofs. They are about more indefinite, intractable, unique, and often more human problems. In short, they are not about nature.

The problem with this (apart from the fact that he says that knowledge about humans is not knowledge about nature, as if humans were somehow set apart from nature – something that might be true in his theology, but is not actually true) is that Hutchinson has just set up another tautology.  Science, according to Hutchinson, is about reproducibility and “Clarity” (Hutchinson’s capitalisation) and “real knowledge” includes fields that he claims involve unreproducible facts.  Therefore, of course science – using his definition – is not going to be valid in other fields which – via his definition – aren’t scientific.  What he’s claiming, without clarifying it (proving that his argument is not scientific in his own terminology), is that science is purely “hard science” (“natural science”) and nothing else – and that real knowledge encompasses everything, up to and including soft science (sociology, economics, politics), scholarship (history, law) and maybe even art.

So, rephrasing the hypotheses again:

Hypothesis – neopolitan holds that hard science is the only source of real knowledge, including knowledge that arises only from soft science, scholarship and art

I suspect that I have, at this stage, some evidence against the hypothesis.  I fully comprehend and accept that it is not possible to source all “real knowledge”, where “real knowledge” is knowledge that arises from hard science, soft science, scholarship and art, if I use only hard science.  I can even use a Venn diagram to see that the hypothesis is invalid:


Therefore, the hypothesis must be rejected and, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I am thus not guilty of the charges of scientism as laid by Professor Ian Hutchinson.

That said, I might be guilty of the more gentle scientism as defined by Michael Shermer, but that’s another thing altogether.

What's Love Got to Do with It?

Much as I welcome feedback, my ethical structure as developed in the series of articles posted over the past few weeks was cruelly challenged before I even began posting it because emotions appear not to have been considered.  This sort of challenge makes me very angry, somewhat sad and has obviously provided me with the opportunity to make a little joke about it, so I’ve ended up slightly amused.  What a watershed of emotion!

More seriously, it is certainly true that there is no reference to emotion in my development of the ethical structure.  However, emotion was not considered for the same reason that childhood experience was not considered.  It’s not strictly relevant.

I shall try to explain.

First and foremost, we should not even consider applying emotion to an ethical structure without understanding what emotion is and why we have it.  We probably all believe that we know what emotions are: those things we feel, or – for the psychopaths among us – those things that other people feel.  However, when we start to think about it in depth, the exact nature of emotions becomes a little less clear.

One thing that strikes me when reviewing philosophical ponderings about emotions is that, throughout history, they have had a bit of a bad reputation – Plato and Aristotle looked at emotions as undesirable (evil even!), while the Ancient Chinese thought they damaged your qi and even modern Buddhists tend to eschew emotions as indicative of attachment.  In the modernising West emotions were seen, until relatively recently, as unhealthy and certainly inferior to reason. 

During the Middle Ages, at least according to Yana Suchy, emotions were actually thought to be immoral (Suchy, Yana (2011). Clinical neuropsychology of emotion. New York, NY: Guilford – per Wikipedia).  If such thinking were to be correct, it would eliminate emotions as worthy of any consideration with respect to the development of ethical structures.

There have been a number of theories regarding emotions.  Early theories posited some sort of fluid or essence associated with each type of emotion – in Ancient Mesopotamia, and later Ancient Greece, we had “humors” corresponding with four fundamental temperaments.  Anger was related to an overabundance of yellow bile while melancholia was due to too much black bile.  Blood was about courage, hope and love while phlegm was about cool, calm reason (hence “phlegmatic”).  The Greeks, who took a rather dodgy idea from Ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia and developed it into something approaching a science, managed to get the whole thing terribly wrong – they thought that blood was associated with the liver, and that phlegm was created in the brain (the latter is only true in slightly more than fifty percent of normal people and approximately ninety five percent of apologists).

In more modern terms, we can perhaps postulate that an emotion is a brain (neurological) state that is coupled with some physical (physiological) state.  We know that we can identify our own emotions from within, so we can assume that there is at least some element of cognition involved – not only in triggering the emotion, but also in recognising the emotion.

Sometimes, however, we only really recognise our emotions as a result of our physiological reactions – for example, we might only realise that we have become angry or frightened when we later notice that we are shaking, or shamed when we redden.

Similarly, we might catch a glimpse of our reflection and note that our expression reveals an emotional response that we weren’t otherwise aware of.  When doing so, we are using an ability associated with reading the emotional states of other creatures.  This ability to read emotional state is not limited to humans: we ourselves can read the emotions of an extensive range of animals while our emotions can be read by certain animals, for example our pets and, to a lesser extent, even wild animals.

We also reveal our emotions in our speech, much as other animals do in their somewhat more limited vocalisations.  (In fact, some animals only vocalise when afraid or in pain.)

Modern theorists have identified a number of individual emotional states that are consistently recognised by all humans, irrespective of their cultural and educational backgrounds (colour coded – Ekman, Plutnik, Ekman/Plutnik):



Trusting (Admiring)







To my way of thinking, Plutnik’s wheel is a little strained by the attempt to maintain such attractive symmetry, with what might be described as “excitement” being diluted across many categories.  Ekman’s range of emotions on the other hand is somewhat lacking, for example disgust is missing.  Even so, we can see that each of the emotions listed can be recognised uniquely – along with this one, which seems to be missing from both categorisations:




(For anyone who is emotionally challenged, that expression is pride.)

So, if we can agree that emotions are recognisable states like fear, pride, joy, anger and sadness, the next question is – why do we have them?

It should come as no surprise that in my opinion the emotions we have are those which promote survival.  If a species had a suite of emotions that were more likely to bring death to members of that species, then that species would not be long for this world.

Note that I refer to a suite of emotions, by which I mean a sort of balanced portfolio of emotions that is appropriate to the species in question.  As a rather large, omnivorous, social animal, the human needs a different range of emotions to survive to, say, a sand cat or a goldfish.  Each of the emotions listed above have a survival-related aspect:

Happiness – social signal (approval)

Tenderness – social binding (e.g. mutual grooming, hugging)

Trust – social binding (e.g. willingness to engage)
Fear – danger avoidance (preparedness to flee)

Surprise – heightened state of alert at unusual situations

Sadness – social signal (disapproval)

Disgust – danger avoidance (e.g. revulsion at the idea of eating rotten food)

Anger – defence mechanism (preparedness to fight)

Excitement – motivation mechanism (e.g. interest in hunting)

Pride – motivation mechanism (e.g. training and educating young)

I’ve seen all these demonstrated clearly by dogs (although their tolerance for disgust seems quite high until you start trying to give them something like worming paste).  Cats, while not quite as demonstrative, indicate the same range of emotions – although their primary emotion in relation to humans tends to be “distain”, they are much more likely to indicate disgust (particularly with respect to cat-food) and, with more than a few cats, the warm glow of mutual trust and understanding tends to be short-lived before turning into skin-shredding anger.

(Some people claim that cats are neurotic, because of their tendency to flip suddenly from cuddly little creature that adores the attention being provided by its pet human to crazed killer intent on doing as much damage as possible to said human’s hand.  Ignorant people such as these are unlikely to make good pets for a cat and should be encouraged to keep alternative pets such as hermit crabs, slugs, ants or possibly sea-monkeys.)

In Morality as Playing Games and An Ethical Structure, I argue that morality is about survival.  If emotions are also about survival, then they are parallel mechanisms – and this is what I believe to be the case.

Emotions can operate on the ethical structure in at least two ways.

Firstly, the rules and guidelines in the lowest tier of the structure are arbitrary and can, therefore, be guided by emotions.  For example, the disgust of some at the idea of men kissing each other can lead to a societal more against homosexuality.   Equally, disgust at the idea of being covered in diseased phlegm can lead to guidelines about politely sneezing into handkerchiefs or tissues.

Secondly, when confronted with a moral dilemma in which moral imperatives or injunctions are in conflict, emotions can be used to resolve the dilemma.  For example, when making the snap decision as to whether to divert a runaway train from its current path (which will kill 20 people in a stationary carriage) onto a side track (that will kill 5 people who would otherwise have survived), you can use your emotional response as a guide.

Your emotional response is, probably, about the only thing you can use if there is no time in which to make a fully informed decision.  It is, however, often a poor basis on which to make a decision, especially if other options are available.  For example, with time to sift all the relevant data, you might come to know that the 20 were all single, balding, highly anti-social, middle-aged orphans, all of whom were soon to die from a drug resistant, highly virulent form of tuberculosis contracted from the orphanage and who were just about jump into separate planes to deliberately spread their tuberculosis as a sick form of revenge on the injustice of the world.  The 5, on the other hand, were all young newlywed belles, all currently pregnant (with twins) and all born into large loving families, with scads of relatives and friends who adored them.  If the 20 died, no-one would miss them and the world would be spared a plague of tuberculosis while hundreds would mourn the 5, or 15, if you count their unborn twins (at least, they would mourn those deaths until they contracted tuberculosis at which time they’d be likely to start worrying more about their own problems …)

In both the setting of moral standards and in the assessment of moral dilemmas, rationality, rather than emotion, is highly likely to be your better guide.

If men kissing each other can really cause a problem, then we can reasonably consider banning such behaviour.  But if there is nothing rational supporting someone’s feeling of disgust, then we should use our rationality to address the origins of that feeling of disgust rather than punishing those who inadvertently trigger it.  We know that harm can come from sneezing (it’s one of the vectors for the transmission of tuberculosis, for example, admittedly along with speaking and singing) so we can throw our support behind the guidelines vis a vis handkerchiefs – on the basis of rationality, without having to resort to emotions at all.

So, in answer to the (slightly rephrased) question “what do emotions have to do with morality?” the rational answer is “as little as possible, thank you very much”.


A little coda:

Perhaps the best application of emotion in making a moral decision is associated with self-awareness.  It’s quite likely that, after making an important moral decision, you will later reflect on the options that were available and the choice you made from those options.  It’s probably a good idea to make sure that any decision you make (moral or otherwise) is the one that will cause the least regret.  This requires a level of self-awareness and understanding not only of your current emotional state but of your likely future emotional states – many a decision made in anger is regretted in a later moment of quiet reflection.  What this self-awareness does, however, is to provide you with some ability to recognise and filter out, or to counteract your current emotions.

Unfortunately, most people aren’t really aware of their emotions and not completely aware of what effect their emotions have.  Here are some pointers from research on the topic:

Happiness makes you underestimate risk (if you are sad you will overestimate risk), and

The upshot of all this is that, if you are happy, you’ll take more risks because you don’t perceive them as risks and you will overestimate the potential benefits, but you are likely to be overly cautious when you are sad.  If you are angry you may recognise risks in a course of action but may court disaster by continuing with it anyway while if you are afraid you will simply avoid risks by taking the safest possible path (thus missing out on opportunities).

The happy medium can be struck by not letting any emotion sway you (not even the ecstatic joy that invariably follows landing a really good blow on a happy medium).