Tuesday, May 16, 2017

All Morality is Relative

Here's a debate I had on debate.org over moral relativism vs. moral realism.


I, of course, being a Christian apologist, defended moral realism. Here is my opening statement in the debate:


Thanks to Pro for initiating the debate, and thanks to the reader for carefully considering our arguements.


Pro did not stipulate the burden of proof in the first round, but I'm going to assume a shared burden of proof which means we each have to defend a point of view, and not merely refute each other's argument. Pro has to show that morals are relative, and I have to show that morals are objective.

Since we each have a point of view to argue for, and since Pro used this round to argue for his point of view, I'm going to use this round to defend my point of view. Then I'll use the next round to give a rebuttal to what Pro said in this round, and he can use the last round to rebut what I say in this round. That way we each have an equal amount of space to defend our views and offer rebuttals.

A note on epistemology

There are two kinds of knowledge: a priori and a posteriori. A posteriori knowledge is knowledge we infer from prior items of knowledge. A priori knowledge is knowledge that is not inferred from prior items of knowledge. Since for whatever items of knowledge we might have, it was either inferred from prior knowledge or it was not (by the law of excluded middle), these two types of knowledge exhaust the possibilities.

It is not possible for all of our knowledge to be a posteriori because if every item of knowledge is based on a prior item of knowledge, that leads to an infinite regress. It would be impossible to arrive at any item of knowledge since there would be no starting place.

So if knowledge is possible at all, then there must be a priori knowledge. Since there is knowledge that is not based on anything prior, the knowledge must be obtained immediately upon reflection. That is, rather than derive the knowledge by reasoning from prior items of knowledge, we have the knowledge immediately just by reflecting on it.

A priori knowledge

There are some items of knowledge we have that could not be based on anything prior since they are unprovable. Those items of knowledge must be a priori. Our a priori knowledge can be subdivided into three categories according to what they have in common and how they differ.

1. First person knowledge

These are items of knowledge about our own first person awareness. Some examples include the fact that we're thinking, perceiving, remembering, and feeling, and what we're thinking, perceiving, remembering, and feeling). This is where Descartes' famous cogito belongs. Merely by thinking, we can know that we exist.

2. Rationally grasped knowledge

These are things we can know about the world outside of our own minds, but they are still known immediately upon reflecting on them. Examples include the law of non-contradiction, that 2 + 2 = 4, and that when two straight lines intersect, the opposite angles are equal. Some of the items in this category require a little more careful reflection to see than other items; consequently, not everybody is able to see them as clearly. For example, one can carefully reflect on a triangle and discover that it's interior angels must equal 180º without having to measure them. But not everybody has the brain power to see that, and they have to either take the textbook's word for it, or measure the angles.

3. Synthetic a priori knowledge.

These are items of knowledge that are built into every healthy and normally functioning mind. Examples include the fact that our senses are giving us true information about the world (which is how we know the external world exists), that our memories are giving us true information about the past (which is how we know there's a past, and how it's possible to have a conversation), and that the observed can be extrapolated to the unobserved (which his how we're able to learn from experience, make predictions about the future, arrive at probabilities, and engage in the scientific enterprise).

What all of these categories have in common is that none of the items in them need to be proved before we can know them. in fact, in most cases, it's impossible to prove them. But without them, it would be impossible to prove anything else. The items in the first category are incorrigible because of our immediate access to our own mental states. The items in the second category can be known with certainty because they express necessary truths, and the necessity of them can be rationally grasped. Once the items in the first and second category are seen clearly with the mind, it is impossible to be mistaken about them.

The items in the third category differ from the first two in the fact that it's possible to be mistaken about them. They do not express necessary truths. It's at least possible that the external world is an illusion. It's possible that there was no past. It's possible that while past experiments have always indicated the world works in a certain way, it may work differently tomorrow. In fact, we sometimes make mistakes regarding the third category. We mistake hallucination with external reality. We remember things incorrectly. We make hasty generalizations. But the fact that we sometimes make mistakes regarding the third category doesn't shake our belief in the general principles.

The third category of knowledge has these things in common:

1. None of them can be proved.

2. It's possible to be mistaken about each of them.

3. We sometimes make mistakes when applying each of them.

4. All mentally healthy people apprehend them.

5. It seems prima face unreasonable to deny them.

6. Even people who do deny them continue to perceive them as if they were real; they merely deny their reality.

7. We all use them in our daily lives.

I would like to be able to give a longer list of items of knowledge for the third category and show how each of them fit all seven of those features, but space is limited.

Moral realism

My argument for morality is that morality fits in the third category because all seven of those traits apply to our moral awareness. We can get rid of morality by denying this particular way of knowing, but in doing so, we will undermined the justification we have for believing in every other item of knowledge in the third category since they are all known in the same way. Since morality has all these things in common with every other item in the third category, morality is on equal epistemological footing. That means it's just as rational to believe in morality as it is to believe in the past, the external world, the uniformity of nature, etc.

Now, let me show how morality fits all seven of the above features.

1. Pro probably already agrees with me that morality cannot be proved.

2. Pro probably also agrees with me that we can be mistaken about morality. In fact, he thinks we are.

3. We sometimes make mistakes in our moral reasoning. This is evident in the fact that people sometimes come to different moral conclusions even when reasoning from the same moral premises.

4. All mentally healthy people perceive a difference between right and wrong. This is evident in the fact that we consider sociopathy to be a mental illness. With the exception of sociopaths, the fact that we all perceive a difference between right and wrong is evident in the fact that (i) we all judge others, which entails applying standards of behavior we think actually apply to other people and not just ourselves, (ii) when accused of wrong-doing, our first instinct is not to deny the standard, but to make excuses for why we didn't violate the standard, (iii) moral decision-making is difficult because we think there are actually correct and incorrect answers to moral questions, (iv) moral relativists are rarely consistent, and (v) we all find moral relativism to be counter-intuitive when we think about specific instances of egregious moral wrongs.

5. It seems prima facie unreasonable to deny morality. The denial of morality leads to many counter-intuitive results. It would follow that no culture is better or worse than another. There's no such thing as moral improvement. There are no unjust laws. There is no objective basis upon which to criticize other people. Nobody deserves praise or blame. Debates on moral issues are just as meaningless as debates on whether salmon tastes good since morality would reduce to preference.

6. Even people who deny morality continue to perceive a difference between right and wrong. They just deny that the perception corresponds to anything outside of their heads. Instead of saying, "Rape is really and objectively wrong," they say, "Rape is wrong for me," or, "I personally oppose rape." But rape continues to be abhorrent to them, and they find it difficult to deny that it really is wrong since it appears wrong to them.

7. Every one of us thinks morally in our day to day interactions with people. Most of the time, we don't notice because the right thing to do is obvious and we do it without much thought. We know we shouldn't steal somebody's wallet, not just because we might get caught, but because it's wrong. We're polite to people, not just because we want them to be polite to us, but because we think that's the right thing to do. Whenever we face moral dilemmas, and it isn't obvious what we should do, then we're forced to think more carefully about morals. We do it continuously throughout the day, but especially when interacting with people.


Since morality fits the seven traits of the third category of a priori knowledge, it follows that morality is just as epistemologically warranted as the other items in that category. If we are justified in believing in the past, the external world, and the uniformity of nature, then we are equally justified in believing in morality. We can deny morality, but that would be just as unreasonable as denying the external world, the past, and the uniformity of nature. So the conclusion that any rational person ought to come to is that there really is a difference between right and wrong that is not merely just in our heads.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Was Dionysus born of a virgin?

I recently had a dialogue with a fellow on debate.org (hereinafter DDO) about some supposed similarities between Dionysus and Jesus. I just responded to one of the parallels, but I decided to do some digging around about the supposed virgin birth of Dionysus. Usually when these things come up, nobody ever cites a primary source, and it's hard to get to the bottom of anything. So I thought I'd see if I could get to the bottom of this one and settle it once and for all.

Through googling around, I discovered that the fellow on DDO had cut and paste from an an article by D.M. Murdock/Acharya S. I read the section on the virgin birth to see if she would cite any primary sources that I could look at. Unfortunately, she cited nothing but secondary sources. But she said, "In the common myth about the birth of Dionysus/Bacchus, Semele is mysteriously impregnated by one of Zeus's bolts of lightning--an obvi­ous miraculous/virgin conception." I decided to pursue this incident to see if I could get to the bottom of it.

To help me along, I posted a question about it in a closed group forum on facebook. One of the people there directed me to this article on pagan parallel saviors. The pagan parallel article cited an on line encyclopedia entry on the mother of Dionysus, Semele, that was written by James Hunter. It says:

Because Zeus slept with Semele secretly, Hera only found out about the affair after the girl was pregnant. Bent on revenge, Hera disguised herself and persuaded Semele to demand that Zeus come to her in all the splendor with which he visited Hera. As a result, Semele asked Zeus to grant an unspecified favor, and got him to swear by the river Styx that he would grant it. Unable to break his oath, Zeus came to her armed in his thunder and lightning, and Semele was destroyed. However, Zeus rescued the unborn child from the mother's ashes and sewed it in his thigh until it was ready to be born.

I still wanted to see it in the primary source, so I kept looking. The savior god article also cited Ovid's Metamorphoses, so I googled "ovid metamorphoses semele" and found a primary source for this story in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book III. It appears under two subtitles: "Juno sets out to destroy Semele" and "Semele is consumed by Jupiter's fire." Apparently, this is a Roman version of an earlier Greek story, and I still haven't found the Greek version. Juno is the same person as Hera, and Jupiter is Zeus. Other than the change in names, everything James Hunter said in the encyclopedia entry is true.

Zeus had been having an affair with Semele. Hera/Juno "was grieved by the fact that Semele was pregnant, with the seed of mighty Jove," aka Zeus. Since Semele was pregnant, Hera decided to get revenge by destroying Semele. She disguised herself as an old woman and visited Semele. She manipulates Semele into getting Zeus to promise to "assume all his powers before he embraces you," just as he does with Hera. Zeus doesn't want to do it because he knows it will kill Semele, but he can't back out of his promise. Zeus tries to limit his powers as much as he can, but he gathers the storm clouds and the thunder and lightening, etc., and appears to Semele. Predictably, she gets burned up. Zeus then rescues Dionysus/Bacchus who was "still unfinished," and sews him into his thigh until he is ready to be born.

So basically, D.M. Murdock had the wrong idea. She thought Zeus somehow got Semele pregnant with the use of a lightening bolt when in reality, Semele was pregnant already from sleeping with Zeus while he was disguised as a mortal man. The lightening played no role in Semele getting pregnant. It seems pretty clear to me that Semele was no virgin.

It's nice to finally get to the bottom of something, huh?

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Love and acceptance

One of the points that keeps getting raised by the LGBT… movement in response to Christians who oppose things like same sex marriage and sex changes is that Jesus was all about love and acceptance. They argue that Christians are inconsistent with Jesus' teachings when they oppose these things and are therefore not acting like real Christians.

But that strikes me as being an extremely unreflective argument. Do these people really think Jesus was loving and accepting of just any life style that any person might choose? Do they really think Jesus would approve of any lifestyle whatsoever just on the basis that he's "loving and accepting"? Well, I don't see how anybody who has read the new testament could get that impression. And even if they haven't read the new testament, I don't see how anybody could think that would be a good attitude to have anyway.

But if it was a good attitude to have, then why can't the LGBT… folks be more loving and accepting of the Christians that oppose them?

The idea that Jesus or anybody ought to be loving and accepting of anything is absurd on its face. Surely we shouldn't be loving and accepting of the criminal lifestyle, the rapist lifestyle, or the alcoholic lifestyle. What kind of person would Jesus be if he approved of these things and was accepting toward people who engaged in them?

If you think Jesus would be loving and accepting of anybody, regardless of how they choose to live their lives, you should check out Matthew 23. He certainly was not very loving and accepting to the Pharisees in that passage.

When Jesus was asked why he hung out with sinners and tax collectors, it wasn't because he was loving and accepting. Quite the contrary. He said, "It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick" (Matthew 9:12). In other words, Jesus didn't accept their lifestyle at all. He hung out with them because he wanted to fix them. He wanted to free them from their slavery to sin. That is love, to be sure, but it is not acceptance.

That's another confusion of LGBT… people who make this argument. It is not loving to accept somebody's sin and treat it as if it weren't sin. If same sex marriage is a sin, then it would not be loving for a Christian to celebrate it. That would be the exact opposite of love because then you'd be enabling somebody and encouraging them to sin.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Does libertarian freedom entail the ability to do good or evil?

Some folks attempt to hold on to libertarian freedom even in light of an inability to do good or an inability to do evil on the basis that when faced with a choice between good and evil, there are multiple options for doing good and multiple options for doing evil. So let's say Jesus has libertarian freedom, but he is incapable of doing evil. One would say that when faced with a choice between good and evil, there are multiple good options that Jesus could choose from, and his final choice is not determined. If he chooses one good option, he could've chosen the other.

I don't think this is an adequate escape for libertarians, though. I think it's a slight of hand. Let's say George is faced with a choice between drinking Sprite or Dr. Pepper. You might be tempted to think this is a choice between two options. But in reality, it's two distinct choices with two distinct sets of options. One choice is whether to drink Dr. Pepper or not. The other is whether to drink Sprite or not. That's two different choices, each with it's own set of options.

When Jesus is faced with some temptation, his choice is whether to give into that temptation or whether to resist that temptation. If resisting that temptation leaves him with multiple options, those multiple options are part of a distinct choice. If Jesus had libertarian freedom regarding the choice whether to give in to the temptation or resist the temptation, then he would be capable of doing either. So if he is incapable of taking one of those options, then he does not have libertarian freedom regarding that choice. If, having resisted the temptation, he is left with multiple morally praiseworthy options, his choice between those options can be free in the libertarian sense, but that doesn't make his choice on whether to give in to or resist the temptation free in the libertarian sense.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

homosexuality and transgenderism

A thought just occurred to me. You know that post I made a while back on "gender and sex" where I talked about how some people consider sex to be a physical thing but gender to be a mental thing? That is, some people think gender has to do with your self-identification. A person can have a male body and a female mind, in which case their sex is male and their gender is female.

Well, I was just thinking about how that fits into the whole homosexuality thing. What does it mean to be homosexual in light of this notion about gender being mental rather than physical? Is a person homosexual because they are into the same sex or because they are into the same gender?

Suppose Tom is physically and mentally male, but his friend, George, is physically male but mentally female. And suppose Tom buys into the whole notion of "gender identity," so he refers to George as a "she." And suppose that Tom has a crush on George. Would Tom be gay or straight?

Or suppose Lisa is physically and mentally female, and she has a crush on George. Would she be gay or straight?

Or suppose Gwyneth is physically female but mentally male, and she has a crush on Brad who is both mentally and physically male. Would she be gay or straight?

Or suppose Andy is physically male but mentally female, and he has a crush on Gwyneth. Would he be gay or straight?

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

What is evidence?

Some people define evidence like this:

E is evidence of T just in case the probability of T is higher given E than it would be without E.

Or in other words. . .

P(T/E) > P(T/~E)

I once used that definition of "evidence" in a debate to show that contrary to my opponent's view that "faith is not evidence" for the existence of God, faith actually was evidence for the existence of God since the existence of God is more probable given that some people have faith than it would be if nobody had faith.

I'm not sure that's really a good definition of evidence, though. Consider the existence of the Elder wand in Harry Potter. The Elder wand is a magic wand made from the Elder tree that is so powerful, it renders the wizard who wields it invincible. That's assuming the wand chose the wizards since in Harry Potter, the wand chooses the wizard.

Now obviously if there were no such thing as an Elder tree, then the probability of the existence of the Elder wand would be zero. But the Elder wand would at least be possible if the elder tree existed, which it does. That possibility might be extremely remote, but the probability would still be greater than zero. Something whose existence is possible has a better chance of existing than something whose existence is impossible, so the probability of the existence of the Elder wand is greater given the existence of the elder tree than it would be given the non-existence of the elder tree. From that, it should follow that the existence of the elder tree is evidence for the existence of the elder wand.

But doesn't that strike you as wrong?

Monday, February 16, 2015

Enough with the snarkiness!

For a long time, it seemed to me that in interactions between Christians and non-Christians, all the vitriol, verbal abuse, sarcasm, snarkiness, and general unpleasantness was coming from atheists and other non-believers, but that Christians were, for the most part, trying to be civil.  J.P. Holding seemed to be the only Christian out there taking the low road, and even though some of us liked what he was saying, most of us didn't like the way he was saying it.  To a lesser degree, a lot of us were also uncomfortable with James White's abrasive attitude.

Atheists weren't just being abrasive because they were immature or because they let their emotions control them.  Even some of the very well-educated and well-respected atheists, like Richard Dawkins, were actually encouraging people to use ridicule.  What many of us previously thought was just the waste-water of the YouTube comment section was now being baptized by the intellectual leaders of the new atheist movement.  It was kind of shocking!

Apparently, even many in the atheist community were uncomfortable with it.  A rift formed between people like Jeff Lowder who thought atheists ought to be civil, and people like Richard Carrier who were all for being nasty.

But lately (for the last year or so), I've noticed that a lot of Christians are starting to give up on civility, too.  I've seen it in a lot of comment sections on blogs, and on discussion boards that I visit.  (I wonder if it is just exhaustion from having to put up with it for so long while trying to take the high road with little effect or reciprocation.)  The snarkiness I've seen from other Christians makes me even more uncomfortable than the snarkiness I've seen from atheists and other non-believers.  After all, I am a Christian myself.

So I just want to remind my fellow arm chair apologists of what Peter said in our signature verse about apologetics:

But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being read to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence. (1 Peter 3:15)

Please, let's not forget the "gentleness and reverence" part.  It seems that a lot of us have.  As Solomon once said, "When a wise man has a controversy with a foolish man, the foolish man either rages or laughs, and there is no rest" (Proverbs 19:11).  Don't be the foolish man.  Take the high road. Any fool can vent his frustration, but it takes patience and humility to remain civil and amicable when reasoning with people over controversial issues.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Do we have a priori knowledge?

By the law excluded middle, an item of knowledge is either inferred from prior items of knowledge or it is not inferred from prior items of knowledge.  Items of knowledge that are inferred are called a posteriori, and items of knowledge that are not inferred are called a priori.  The only way to escape this dichotomy is to deny that there's any such thing as knowledge at all.

The denial of a priori knowledge leads to absurdity.  If you deny that it's possible to know something without inferring it from something else, then you would have to say that for everything you know, there is a prior item of knowledge from which you inferred it.

For example, let's say you know that Socrates is mortal.  Perhaps you inferred that item of knowledge from these two items of knowledge:

1.  All men are mortal.
2.  Socrates is a man.

But if each item of knowledge you possess must be inferred from something prior, then there must be further items of knowledge from which you infer 1 and 2.  Otherwise, you couldn't know that Socrates is mortal.  And then there must be further items of knowledge from which you infer those as well.

If you continue to think this through, you'll quickly see that it leads to an infinite regress.  If all of our items of knowledge must be inferred from prior items of knowledge, then the only way it's possible to know anything is if there is a beginningless line of reasoning from prior premises that leads up to your present state of knowledge.

But that is impossible for three reasons.  First, none of us know an infinite number of things.  Second, because nobody has been around long enough to make an infinite number of inferences.  Third, because if there were no beginning, there would be no way to even get started making inferences.  You couldn't very well start at the beginning because there's no beginning to get started from!

So it is impossible that all of our knowledge is a posteriori.  If we know anything at all, then at least some of our knowledge must be a priori.  That means that unless there are some things we know immediately without inferring them from anything else, then knowledge is impossible.

Some people may be willing to bite the bullet and say, "Well, okay, then nobody really knows anything at all, including me."  This view is called global skepticism.  It is a self-refuting point of view for a couple of reasons.

First, it's self-refuting because if nobody knows anything, then we wouldn't know it.  A person who claims not to know anything is stating something he doesn't know to be true.

Second, it's self-refuting because if nobody knows anything, then nobody knows that any of the premises that lead to the conclusion are true, nor that the conclusion follows from those premises.

Besides that, there are plenty of things we obviously know.  We each know that we exist.  We know that two contradictory statements can't both be true at the same time and in the same sense.  I know that I have a sister named Jennifer and a brother named James.  There are all kinds of things we know.  So there must be a priori knowledge.