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Wednesday, December 07, 2005


Tom Harmon

So, would a follower of Professor Ludd be a Luddite?

Just askin'.


Amen. Yet another fashionable slogan inextricably intertwined with relativism.

Incidentally, I'd say that Jiddu Krishnamurti popularized this well before Leary.

Ed Peters

Back in college, somebody once stuck a QUESTION AUTHORITY bumper sticker up on a wall or a board, i recall, and under it I wrote "Says Who?"

It caught on, as i saw/heard others use the same snappy comeback.

One of my prouder moments, if I do so say so myself.


'Question authority.'

OK. Ask me anything.

Terrence Berres

"... the writers of the U.S. constitution sought to 'balance two competing ideas: liberty and order and justice.'"

Not to question authority, but that's three ideas.

Kevin C.

Tom, Maybe they would be a Luddian. Hope all is well in Florida.

Mark Brumley

Luddite. Hmmm. Question authority! Who sez! Ed Peters has the answer to that one. Ed should tell one of his other philosophical stories, such as the one about the debate over objective truth.

It's fascinating how people think they can assume a stance in relation to fundamental questions that somehow isn't supposed to be subject to the same sort of questioning with which these people heckle others. It's as if I thought I could present an argument to refute presenting arguments or show logically why everyone else is subject to logic but I am not.

A case in point in this kind of thing is an atheistic scientist I read who attacked the notion that there is some overarching meaning to existence. I won't mention his name because I don't want to get into a quibble with his supporters (as can happen on such occasions) over whether the scientist holds precisely the view I attribute to him or whether that view is better attributed to someone else. Instead, I'll focus on his argument. If he doesn't hold exactly the position I am criticizing, then all the better for him. Plenty of others do.

The scientist's argument, which I summarize here, is based on the is/ought distinction--the premise that you can't derive an ought or a value judgment from an "is"--a state of being.

Science, he holds, alone is objective. And science tells us about what is. Thus, science can't tell us about issues of value and therefore issues of value can't be objective. When someone talks about "the meaning of the universe", he can't be talking about anything objective--about anything having to do with the universe as such. He can tell us what the universe is and how it behaves, but when he speaks of its "meaning", he tells us only about his feelings about the universe. These feelings, being purely subjective and not rational, can't be commended or criticized on the basis of reason. We can say that they correspond to nothing that exists in the universe as such. They are not, on this view, appropriate or inappropriate, moral or immoral. Indeed, argues the scientist, morality itself is not rational, if by morality one means an appeal to some characteristic of existence that all people should recognize. Morality can be rational only if we mean by morality a set of practices more or less conducive to human survival. Those practices that conduce to survival are moral; those which do not are immoral, on this view.

The scientist goes on to say that while his friends chastize him as immoral for his atheism, he thinks of himself as courageous--as bravely facing the fact that existence has no meaning or purpose. It is the believer, he says, who is immoral because he refuses to be honest or courageous about the meaningless of it all.

There is a lot that could be said about this scientist's philosophy and a lot of flaws in his thinking we could consider. But the one I call attention to here is the idea that he is somehow praiseworthy because of his atheism.

If what the scientist holds about existence is true, then why should we characterize his atheism or anything else he thinks or does in such value-laden terms as "courageous" or "honest" or "brave"? Those terms make sense only if one believes in objective values and a universe that has associated with it the whole category of value discernible by reason, though in a different way than how the mind knows the merely sensible aspects of existence. But if one denies the objectivity of values, as the scientist does, then why is it "commendable" to "tell it like is is" (or how one thinks it is)? Why is it "courageous" or "brave" to affirm that existence has no meaning or purpose? Such a way of speaking seems to smuggle in the very thing the scientist in question purports to rule out from the outset. He seems to want to pat himself on the back for holding there to be no reason for back-patting.

Now you might argue, as the scientist in question would seem compelled to argue, that courage and honesty are "moral" because they are conducive to human survival. But that would, on his analysis, be all that could be said in their favor. You certainly couldn't point to one's allegedly brave or honest actions as if bravery and honesty involved objective values.

Furthermore, either there is a system of value to tell us such things as whether we ought or ought not to engage in activities conducive to human survival, or there is no system of values. The scientist in question holds the latter view. How then does he say that morality refers only to those things that are conducive to human survival? Does his definition of morality suggest that human survival ought to be pursued? Is that an objectively valid "ought" or merely the scientist's feeling? And if it is merely his feeling, why should his having such a feeling and acting in accordance with it be presented to us as something to be praised?

Mark Brumley

BTW: Much of the above is brilliantly expounded in C.S. Lewis' THE ABOLITION OF MAN. Since this 'tis the season to read Lewis, then those who haven't read the book might want to do so. Pronto.

Tom Harmon

All will be well in Florida after finals are over next Thursday.

Ed Peters

My story about the debate over objective truth is both true and a scream. One need only pour out a glass of tawny or vintage port to get me to tell it.

Carl Olson

Ed: I've poured the port on my end, so let's hear it. Sounds like a good piece for Hint, hint...

Mark Brumley

I'll have to wait until I come back from teaching tonight to have my tawny port. But then I've already heard the story, so fire when ready.

Ed Peters

Gentlemen, I should have made myself clearer, I see. The point is not for YOU chaps to enjoy a port while I slave away over a keyboard, but rather, for you to pour ME a glass of port (as I say, either tawny or vintage is fine) so that I can narrate the story. I understand that such will require some adjustments, given the time-space constraints of this present life. Still, where there's a will, there's a way.

Mark Brumley

I've poured you a glass. So let's hear it.

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