Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Atheism and a Platonic realm of moral facts

From Graham Veale

Can’t the atheist posit a Platonic realm of moral facts? Couldn’t moral values just exist, independently, as abstract facts or necessary truths? But how did we acquire knowledge of these moral truths? Natural selection might favour cognitive systems that give us an accurate picture of the physical world around us: accurate information about the natural world helps us to avoid dangerous falls and predators. But what possible reproductive advantage could knowledge of abstract moral truths bring? Isn’t it more likely that natural selection, and inevitably flawed cognitive systems, would lead us into moral error? If theism is true we have been designed to have moral knowledge. If atheism is true we should be sceptical of all our moral beliefs.


7 comments:

John Moore said...

It seems clear that moral facts don't exist apart from the concrete physical world. Moral facts are the facts that tend to promote our evolutionary survival.

He's right that we couldn't know (or care) about any abstract "Platonic" moral facts. They simply don't exist.

One Brow said...

rankly, I'm not big on any sort of Platonic facts, much less moral facts.

Hal said...

I share your outlook, One Brow.

Rasmus Møller said...

Genghis Khan was an immense reproductive and thereby evolutionary success. If I were to copy his success by the same means, would that be moral?

John Moore said...

You can't copy the success of Genghis Khan because the world is totally different today. If you started rampaging and conquering today, you would most likely be captured and locked up.

It's debatable whether Genghis Khan was really an evolutionary success, due to various reasons. For one thing, most of the people Genghis Khan killed were his close relatives, from an evolutionary perspective. Most of the men who would have had children with the women who bore Genghis Khan's children were his close relatives. And just generally speaking, evolutionary success isn't just about the number of children, but it makes a big difference how you raise the children.

Still, there are hundreds of millions of people alive today with Genghis Khan genes, so that's pretty impressive. On the other hand, Mongolia today isn't one of the world's most powerful countries.

Yes, it's generally a bad thing to go on a rampage and wage war far and wide. On the other hand, we can't assume that the people Genghis Khan defeated were any better than he was, morally speaking. The Mongols might have been like a "new broom" to sweep away lots of rot and corruption, allowing better things to grow back in their place.

It's an interesting question, to be sure, but I don't think we can say that Genghis Khan either was or was not moral. It's complicated.

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

Can’t the atheist posit a Platonic realm of moral facts?

Yes, atheistic platonism is logically consistent.

Couldn’t moral values just exist, independently, as abstract facts or necessary truths?

Yes. Things like:

NAT: "Pain is intrinsically (and prima facie) bad"

seem to be necessary, not contingent, truths. I cannot even imagine what it would mean to say that the truth of NAT depends upon some contingent fact about reality.

But how did we acquire knowledge of these moral truths? Natural selection might favour cognitive systems that give us an accurate picture of the physical world around us: accurate information about the natural world helps us to avoid dangerous falls and predators. But what possible reproductive advantage could knowledge of abstract moral truths bring? Isn’t it more likely that natural selection, and inevitably flawed cognitive systems, would lead us into moral error? If theism is true we have been designed to have moral knowledge. If atheism is true we should be sceptical of all our moral beliefs.

What's with the British spelling?

No pun intended, but this argument seems more plausible when stated in the abstract than when we're given concrete moral truths to apply it to. It's not difficult to imagine how knowledge of, say, NAT could bring about an advantage for survival and reproduction. Besides, the truth of NAT is so universally accepted that I'm not sure the worry you raise even matters from a practical perspective.

It's also worth pointing out that, given that we do seem to have knowledge of at least some moral truths, the fact that there is so much disagreement about other moral truths is evidence favoring naturalism over theism. For example, the fact the moral status of abortion is so hotly contested, even among theists, is much more surprising on theism than on naturalism. At least some theists get it wrong when it comes to abortion. What happened to the theistic design plan for moral knowledge there?

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

Please disregard my question about British spelling. I was writing from my phone and missed the note at the top of the post that this was written by someone else.