Saturday, May 01, 2021

Materialism and morally motivated actions

1. No act is morally motivated if it can be fully explained in terms of nonmoral causes.
2. If materialistic atheism is true, then all actions can be fully explained in terms of nonmoral causes.
3. But some actions are morally motivated.
Therefore, materialistic atheism is false.

34 comments:

Starhopper said...

The argument seems a bit simplistic, and definitely would not impress any atheist I know. They (and I'm thinking of one individual specifically) would respond by saying that anyone who claims a moral moral motivation for an action is either fooling himself or has fallen for an illusion.

The same argument is used to explain our reactions to art, literature, beauty, etc. All "chemical reactions" they would say.

Victor Reppert said...

Well, that is one advantage of the argument from reason. If you argue based on morally motivated actions, they can say that it never happens, so so what. If atheists argue that we do not reason, then they are undermining the sciences, which we can be sure they will be worried about. On the other hand, materialistic atheists sometimes like to argue that they are just as moral as religious believers, even more so, and that their materialist philosophy makes no moral difference. The entire enterprise of ethics presupposes that we can choose actions on the basis of their rightness or wrongness. Otherwise, who cares whether we decide that abortion is right or wrong, or even whether murder is OK or not. It's all just chemical reactions, and what is right or wrong doesn't affect the chemistry.

One Brow said...

I would disagree with the second point. Causes come in a wide variety of levels and interactions, not just sub-atomic interactions. Various types of groups of interactions can be moral even the the sub-atomic interactions are not.

Victor Reppert said...

The causes are either teleological or they are not. If they are nonteleoligcal at the basic level, they cannot be teleological on any level.

David Brightly said...

What is meant by fully explained here? Granted, the ticking of a clock can be fully explained in terms of non-moral, material, causes. We can give an account in terms of springs, gear wheels, escapements, pendulums, etc. And we attach no moral motivation to said ticking. Now, suppose a man jumps into a river at night to rescue a drowning woman, as happened in London recently, and dies himself. What would an explanation of this act in terms of non-moral causes look like? I say there is no such explanation, so the consequent of (2) has a counter-example and is false. But then if (2) itself is true its antecedent must be false, by modus tollens. So we would seem to have disproved materialistic atheism without recourse to the concept of moral motivation. Isn't there something fishy here in the notion expressed by (2) that materialistic atheism somehow guarantees full explanations? Else, are we to understand explanation differently in some way?

Victor Reppert said...

"Full explanation" means here that there is a comprehensive causal chain, a total causal story, from the big bang to the occurrence of the actions, at the physical level, which excludes any reference to any moral properties. Given the physical, everything else is guaranteed, and since the physical is, ex hypothesi, causally closed, moral properties and moral motivation are locked out of the explanation.

One Brow said...

Dr. Reppert,

To my understanding, "teleological" refers to why a things exists, as opposed to why actions are taken. Perhaps I'm misunderstanding you. or the concept generally.

Either way, I find that statements of the form "are either ________ or they are not" to be almost always a product of our need to simplify complex information, as opposed to accurate descriptions of reality.

If they are nonteleoligcal at the basic level, they cannot be teleological on any level.

Do you have some proof of this? Is this intended to be a result of the binary nature of moral causality you just declared?

If morality and moral causality are not, in fact, emergent properties of actions when examined as a system, then they need not be a part of every facet of every possible subsystem.

One Brow said...

Victor Reppert,
"Full explanation" means here that there is a comprehensive causal chain, a total causal story, from the big bang to the occurrence of the actions, at the physical level, which excludes any reference to any moral properties. Given the physical, everything else is guaranteed, and since the physical is, ex hypothesi, causally closed, moral properties and moral motivation are locked out of the explanation.

No such explanation exists regardless of the addition of moral causes to actions. Humans have neither the time nor the understanding to create them.

When a person identifies an apple as red or green, there is no single photon impacting the eye upon when the determination is made. It's made based on a aggregation of impacts, which have an effect in concert that they do not have individually, and we get a perception of color where no such perception existed in the smallest parts.

David Brightly said...

The materialist no doubt believes that nothing outside the physical contributes to human action but he's hardly in possession of a total causal story---an account in words---to explain such action. We have some conception of nerve and muscle cells and the physics and chemistry of what goes on inside them, but an explanation of action at this level is rather like an explanation of the ticking clock at the level of atoms. That's nothing like the explanation in terms of gear wheels, bits of ordinary sized matter of which we have an intuitive understanding that, pace certain philosophers of science, we can relate to our ideas about atoms. We can't rule out that 'moral motivation' is a name we give to something we dimly perceive within ourselves, analogous to a gear wheel seen through a glass darkly, perhaps.

Victor Reppert said...

But a materialist believes that the physical is causally closed. The belief that there is, and must be, a total causal story at the level of physics, and the nothing other than the physical can cause anything in the universe. Whether or not it is our duty to do something must never be the ultimate or most fundamental explanation for anything in the universe. What governs the atoms is physical law, not moral law. If the moral law governs our actions, then physicalism is false.

David Brightly said...

P. If the moral law governs our actions, then physicalism is false.

Even on a very strong reading of 'governs' I don't think this need be true. Suppose there is such a thing as the moral law and that it moderates our actions inviolably, just as physical law is seen as exceptionless. The moral law could be realised by some physical structure or configuration within us (a 'moral gearwheel') that constrains or promotes our actions within the moral law, yet operates entirely within physical law. So the antecedent of (P) can be true yet the consequent false. In other words, moral law and physical law can be compatible. We need have no epistemic access to our moral gearwheel. We could at best infer its presence from the constraints we might observe in our behaviour.

One Brow said...

Victor Reppert,
Whether or not it is our duty to do something must never be the ultimate or most fundamental explanation for anything in the universe.

When particular aggregations of physical phenomena are performed by our mental faculties, these aggregations are not at the "most fundamental" level, but they can be causal. There is no individual photon that causes us to see green, which may cause us to eat or to not eat a particular piece of food. Nonetheless, it is the perception of green that guides our actions. Aggregations of physical phenomena have causal effects that the fundamental phenomena do not.

Other sort of aggregations allow us to perceive choices that have moral consequences, and our decision to follow moral law is a result of other aggregations.

bmiller said...

David,

Suppose there is such a thing as the moral law and that it moderates our actions inviolably, just as physical law is seen as exceptionless.

I wonder if you think this moral law you are positing is different than what billiard balls when struck by a cue and comets in outer space.

It seems to me that objects in outer space are normally moved in a different manner than billiard balls that are struck by a cue ball. Objects that are not being violently struck seem to move in a predictable direction. Once struck they move in a different direction (although this too may be predictable). But both of those are predictable by the laws of know physics.

It seems that people don't behave that way. Most of the time we can predict the way people should behave, but not all people behave the way they should. What's the problem with the mechansim?

David Brightly said...

Hi BM. Yes, indeed. I was following Victor's use of 'governs'. He says at 1:10 PM, What governs the atoms is physical law, not moral law. If the moral law governs our actions, then physicalism is false. Clearly the sense in which the moral law governs our actions is looser, less strict, weaker, than the sense in which physical law governs the atoms, at least at macroscopic scales. It isn't inviolable. It's an unfortunate accident of history that we use 'law' and 'government' in both contexts. But I think the gearwheel analogy still works. Imagine the clockwork has a gearwheel with a missing tooth. It no longer ticks perfectly but well enough perhaps. It's flawed. But still wholly governed by the laws of physics.

Starhopper said...

This conversation brings up (in my mind, at least) a mystery that I've never heard a sufficient answer to as yet. Victor speaks of "motivation" and others punt to "the laws of physics". Yet both of these are essentially information. A computer's actions are governed by its programming (a.k.a., information) which is stored within its software. A human being can be said (at least, on a physical level) to be governed by his "nature and nurture", which are stored in his brain cells. So both a computer and a human being can be said to "know" how to act in a specified situation by responding to information stored in an identifiable medium.

But at the most fundamental level of matter, that of the subatomic particle, objects react to situations from information stored... how? where? An electron, for instance, "knows" that it must be attracted to a proton and repelled by another electron. But where is such knowledge stored? The electron has no parts, no internal structure, no recognizable means of storing information.

One Brow said...

bmiller,
But both of those are predictable by the laws of know physics.

Are you familiar with the difficulties in predicting the motion of even as few as three bodies under gravitation? Among other things, even a small error in the knowledge of the initial conditions can create wildly different long-term behavior.

It seems that people don't behave that way. Most of the time we can predict the way people should behave, but not all people behave the way they should. What's the problem with the mechansim?

If we can even predict three-body gravitational interactions accurately due to imprecision in our knowledge, there is no reason to think we could do so for something as complex as human interactions.

One Brow said...

David Brightly,.
Clearly the sense in which the moral law governs our actions is looser, less strict, weaker, than the sense in which physical law governs the atoms, at least at macroscopic scales.

There are no physical laws that govern the behavior of atoms. Atoms behave how they behave by nature of being what they are, and we write (scientific) laws to organize and simplify these behaviors for our own understanding and predictive uses. It does not seem to be any different for moral laws.

One Brow said...

Starhopper,

But at the most fundamental level of matter, that of the subatomic particle, objects react to situations from information stored... how? where? An electron, for instance, "knows" that it must be attracted to a proton and repelled by another electron. But where is such knowledge stored? The electron has no parts, no internal structure, no recognizable means of storing information.

To my understanding, all particles interact with each other on various levels by exchanging various bits of energy. The particles electrons exchange push them way from each other.

bmiller said...

David,

It's flawed. But still wholly governed by the laws of physics.

Maybe it's the definition of "physics" that is the problem.

Unmolested physical objects naturally move. Gravity attracts them all, so there is an overall tendency for them to move to the center. The Big Crunch for instance.

But those objects may be impeded by other objects that collide with them and move them offcourse or prevent their otherwise natural movement.

Maybe I intend to knock something off-course by throwing a ball at it. That is another kind of observable movement since it depends on my decision.

Since all three of these instances, although different in observable ways, involve the movement of material objects in space and time then all three can be a study of physics if physics is defined as "the movement of material objects in space and time".

But if we define physics as "the movement of material objects in space and time excluding animate agency" then it seems we've left out 1/3 of the observable types of movement.

Furthermore if we forgot that we defined physics in the second sense and thought we had really defined it in the first sense it seems to me that we're trying to fit a square peg in the round hole we forgot was really a round hole.

bmiller said...

But at the most fundamental level of matter, that of the subatomic particle, objects react to situations from information stored... how? where? An electron, for instance, "knows" that it must be attracted to a proton and repelled by another electron. But where is such knowledge stored? The electron has no parts, no internal structure, no recognizable means of storing information.

What this tells us is that naturally occurring things are unlike the artifacts that we create. Because we created a machine that supplements our own memory and mechanically adds and subtracts does not mean that everything is a computer.

Reminds me of the story of Pygmalion. He fell in love with his own creation and thought it was something different than what it was.

bmiller said...

David,

To add to my earlier post:

But I think the gearwheel analogy still works. Imagine the clockwork has a gearwheel with a missing tooth. It no longer ticks perfectly but well enough perhaps. It's flawed. But still wholly governed by the laws of physics.

I think this is related to my analogy of the square peg in the round hole. We don't wonder why objects traveling in space or colliding with each other have working or non-working gearwheels. We only have to invent gearwheels at all to attempt to fit things that don't fit with our theory into our theory.

It makes me suspect there's something wrong with a theory that needs that. Maybe we need to step back and develop a theory that encompasses all 3 types of motion.

bmiller said...

This conversation brings up (in my mind, at least) a mystery that I've never heard a sufficient answer to as yet.

Maybe electrons want to be attracted to protons by virtue of the fact that this is the nature of electrons. Look closely at the root of the word you used. Information.

Starhopper said...

I would be happy with such an explanation, but I doubt that any materialist would care for it. Smells of teleology. In fact, it reeks of it. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

David Brightly said...

BM,

We only have to invent gearwheels at all to attempt to fit things that don't fit with our theory into our theory. It makes me suspect there's something wrong with a theory that needs that.

Let me expand a bit. I think the materialist is driven by a vision of the world, deriving from the success of science and physics in particular, as ultimately matter in motion, with what's happening at a particular place wholly determined by the local circumstances. Mathematically this comes down to partial differential equations like Maxwell's equations for electromagnetism. It rules out Newtonian gravity with its 'action at a distance'. Instead we have Einstein's field equations of General Relativity, which are local. If we could take a fancy microscope that could let us see what's going on in any tiny region of space we would find no exceptions. At this level of description causality disappears. Elementary stuff just does what elementary stuff does, described by the equations. But this knowledge or understanding is useless for helping us macroscopic creatures get by in the day-to-day world of medium-sized objects in which we find ourselves. Of course, it enables clever people to design and build fancy gadgets that do help us, but our ordinary thinking is not in these terms. Instead our understanding works in terms of what we now understand to be aggregations of vast numbers of elementary bits of matter---what I'm calling 'gearwheels'. For all the amazing activity in biological matter across the Northern hemisphere at this time of year we have just the one word: Spring. The Spring gearwheel drives the Summer gearwheel, as it were. This is where causation comes into the picture. We understand that one (clockwork) gearwheel moves another---we actually see it happening---conveniently putting aside the question why one gearwheel doesn't simply coalesce with another like raindrops. But that's just what metal gearwheels do! Of course, this is explained in the end by our physics, but we got by for millennia without this knowledge.

How does human activity, in particular, the Moral Law, enter this picture? The materialist has to say, as before, that it's ultimately matter in motion. But again the elementary particle picture is useless for understanding. An aggregated picture in terms of neurons and muscles is only marginally better. Instead we have the language of psychology---belief, fear, purpose, morals, etc. But unlike metal gearwheels we can't exhibit these on the table for all to see. We can only 'feel' them through introspection, maybe, and then talk about them. How do we even manage to learn what these words mean, or rather, learn how to use them in ways that make sense to others? The materialist can only hazard that there are larger interacting aggregations within the brain whose motion 'causes' our actions. A sophisticated materialist like Daniel Dennett has a more detailed picture largely in terms of what he calls 'memes', which are bits of structure that can be somehow 'copied', maybe with error, from one brain to another, and hence give rise to a kind of Darwinian evolution amongst themselves. Obviously there are endless unanswered questions here. These are pre-scientific ideas that can't be tested and so are grist for the mill of Philosophy. What are the conceptual fallacies lurking within this compatibilist picture?

One Brow said...

Starhopper,
I would be happy with such an explanation, but I doubt that any materialist would care for it.

On the contrary, for the materialist looking at the most fundamental level, there is only the nature of physical things.

One Brow said...

bmiller,
Maybe I intend to knock something off-course by throwing a ball at it. That is another kind of observable movement since it depends on my decision.

This is based on the assumption that your decision is not based on the first two types of motion you mention.

bmiller said...

David,

I agree with your assessment that the materialistic vision constrains itself to the idea that physics is all there really is to it. Not sure I agree that it's only local (Cosmology is a pretty big neighborhood) but OK. As the saying goes, if all you have is a hammer, every problem starts looking like a nail.

But when you move from talking about physics to talking about psychology then the tool the materialist is using is no longer a hammer. He's using a screwdriver and claiming it's still a hammer. It's obviously not.

That is what I'm getting at. We don't even have to talk about morals to see that naturally occurring animate beings are matter in motion every bit as much as electrons yet don't follow the same rules as other types of matter in motion. They can start, stop or change their own motion all by themselves. Everyone realizes this but for some reason some still want insist that everything is still a nail while they work on it with the screwdriver they call a hammer.

These are pre-scientific ideas that can't be tested and so are grist for the mill of Philosophy.

What you are calling pre-scientific ideas are just ideas that are outside of the realm of physics and so cannot be tested by the instruments (hammers) of physics. Hammer-aholics will remain perplexed if they cannot give up their addictions ;-)

David Brightly said...

BM,

'Local' here has a technical meaning: What happens at a point depends on field strengths at that point and their spatial and temporal rates of change at that point. No other point is involved. That's why Newtonian gravity is deprecated. It's defined in terms of two points---the locations of two distinct gravitating masses.

The materialist could say that when the blade of the screwdriver engages with the slot in the screw head myriads of tiny hammers bang on the diagonally opposed faces of the slot and hence apply a couple to the screw.

The fundamental particles in a person follow the exact same laws as they did when they constituted the food that he ate or the air that he breathed. But the laws for aggregates, seen as ones over many, are different. It doesn't make sense to talk of the temperature of a gas molecule but it does for a volume of gas.

Sure. Different kinds of material aggregates have their own sciences, methods, and instruments beyond those of physics. But nobody would say that the matter disobeys the laws of physics, surely, even if physics offered no useful explanatory account of the behaviour of the aggregates. I say 'pre-scientific' because an awful lot of sharpening up needs to be done before any kind of scientific test of meme theory would be possible. But it would never get that far if philosophical investigation laid bare its incoherence, say.

bmiller said...

David,

I like your tiny hammers;-)

The fundamental particles in a person follow the exact same laws as they did when they constituted the food that he ate or the air that he breathed. But the laws for aggregates, seen as ones over many, are different. It doesn't make sense to talk of the temperature of a gas molecule but it does for a volume of gas.

Right. Particles do not have the properties of the substances they are parts of. And substances do not have the properties of the particles that are part of them.

But is it really true that particles follow the exact same laws as they did when they constituted a different substance? Atoms that bond together in a covalent bond share electrons and so they do not behave the same as the way they did before. That bond can be broken and they can bond in a different configuration and behave in still a different manner. Atoms by themselves behave in a different manner yet.

So isn't it more correct to stay that a hydrogen molecule (H2) is only "virtually" present in a water molecule since neither it nor the water molecule behave anything like hydrogen?

But psychology is an entirely different kettle of fish.

bmiller said...

Speaking of kettles of fish.

Sounds like Kevin's son may like this book.

David Brightly said...

I would say that a water molecule does not contain a hydrogen molecule as such. In an H2 molecule the two hydrogen nuclei (protons) are bound to each other. In H2O they are bound to the oxygen nucleus. So there is no H2 substructure in H2O. Of course, the H2O molecule is a union of the fundamental particles in one H2 molecule and those in one O atom. That's the only sense that an H2 is present in an H2O. And the one law that governs the electron behaviour in each of these distinct aggregates is the Schroedinger equation.

Water naturally ionises weakly. H2O + H2O <---> H3O+ + OH-. A proton from one H2O occasionally moves across to another H2O leaving behind 'its' electron and producing a positive hydronium ion and a negative hydroxide ion. This accounts for the weak electrical conductivity of water. The charged ions will move through the fluid under an electric field.

bmiller said...

I would say that a water molecule does not contain a hydrogen molecule as such.

I consider we are in agreement then.

So it seems that although H2O is made of the same stuff as H2 and O when in a covalent bond they both no longer exist as such. Physics, as only the study of matter in motion, has no notion of this concept that you and I plainly see. We've already moved beyond physics textbooks and smuggled in further philosophical concepts.

bmiller said...

Physics can tell us that the total quantities of mass and energy were conserved in the formation of H2O and the precise quantities before and after. But physics can't tell us what no longer exists and what now exists that didn't exist before. Nor why should we care what all that means.

Like you said. It helps clever people build useful gadgets more efficiently but those clever people conceive of inventions for a purpose. Clever people can make the connection that if they want water they can bring hydrogen and oxygen together under controlled conditions and add energy produce water. All physics did was provide a method of measuring things to get an efficent result.

Physics is like my bathroom scale. It just tells me I'm fat. If that's all there really is to it, then materialism sounds like my wife;-)

One Brow said...

bmiller,
So it seems that although H2O is made of the same stuff as H2 and O when in a covalent bond they both no longer exist as such. Physics, as only the study of matter in motion, has no notion of this concept that you and I plainly see. We've already moved beyond physics textbooks and smuggled in further philosophical concepts.

You just used an example from from physics to claim physics has no notion thereof.

Clever people can make the connection that if they want water they can bring hydrogen and oxygen together under controlled conditions and add energy produce water. All physics did was provide a method of measuring things to get an efficent result.

Physics is one of the methods used by these "clever people". Also, combining hydrogen and oxygen requires no energy; they produce it on their own.

We don't even have to talk about morals to see that naturally occurring animate beings are matter in motion every bit as much as electrons yet don't follow the same rules as other types of matter in motion. They can start, stop or change their own motion all by themselves.

Robots, by following their programming and interacting with the environment, can start, stop, or change their own motion all by themselves.

Everyone realizes this but for some reason some still want insist that everything is still a nail while they work on it with the screwdriver they call a hammer.

You're discussing a position that very few atheists, if any, claim to have.