Monday, May 31, 2010

Three kinds of oughts

I've been putting this blog off for a long time because there was a fourth kind of ought I wanted to talk about, but I can't remember what it was.

Anyway, there are three kinds of oughts--the rational ought, the pragmatic ought, and the moral ought. And the reason I'm telling you about this is because in a lot of discussions (especially discussions over the grounding problem in morality), I see these different kinds of oughts conflated, which results of the participants talking past each other. I thought maybe if I could get the word out about these distinctions in "oughts" that maybe the conversation could move forward a bit.

The rational ought is like when you say, "You ought to believe that two and two make four." The rational ought comes from the fact that reality is a certain way and that sometimes given certain premises, the rational thing to do is believe a certain proposition that follows from the premises. A person who believes that all men are mortal and that Socrates is a man ought also to believe that Socrates is mortal.

A pragmatic ought is like when you say, "You ought to change the oil in your car." You're not doing anything immoral by not changing the oil in your car, but it's still a good idea for practical reasons. The pragmatic ought comes from the fact that some things are in your best interest or they serve your purposes. You ought, in the pragmatic sense, to save money, eat well, stay in school, etc.

A moral ought is like when you say, "You ought to be faithful to you wife." The moral ought comes from the fact that we all have obligations or imperatives that are imposed on us. We ought, in the moral sense, to be kind, generous, fair, and honest.

All of these oughts can be expressed using other words, such as good, bad, should, shouldn't, right, and wrong. Here are some examples:

The rational ought

'B' is a good answer to the question.
You should believe the man is guilty because there's good evidence for it.
That answer is not right.

The pragmatic ought

Saving money for retirement is a good idea.
You should save money for retirement.
[Hmm, maybe "right" and "wrong" don't work well with the pragmatic ought.]

The moral ought

It is good to be honest.
You should be honest with people.
Being honest is the right thing to do.

It is easy to conflate the moral ought with the pragmatic ought because most of the time, the moral thing to do is the pragmatic thing to do. If we all lived morally, the world would be a happier place. We'd all be better off.

That isn't always the case, though. It might be a good idea in the pragmatic sense to kill somebody, because it would help everybody else ought by relieving them of a burden. But it could still be wrong. And it might be right to be honest with somebody even if there are disadvantages in doing so.

In debates about the grounding question of morality, I have often seen people explain the pragmatic ought thinking they have given grounds for the moral ought. In answer to the question, "Why be moral?" atheists will sometimes answer that acting in a way that people call "moral" is in our best interest. If we don't want people to steal from us, we ought not steal from them. But, of course, that doesn't mean it's morally wrong to steal from people; it just means stealing is a bad idea in the pragmatic sense. A person who attempts to ground morality in practical advantages isn't really grounding morality at all since they are only explaining pragmatic oughts, and not moral oughts.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The crucifixion

There are a number of scholars from the entire range of the liberal/conservative spectrum who have said the most certain thing we can know about Jesus is that the Romans executed him by crucifixion. I don't know what all their individual reasons are for saying that, but I'll tell you what I think is the strongest reason.

The early Christians thought Jesus was the Christ. He was the fulfillment of the promises given to Israel to always have a man on the throne of David. By claiming to be the Christ, Jesus was essentially claiming to be the promised king of Israel. It was natural, then, that people would expect him to redeem Israel--to run the Romans off and reestablish Israel's national sovereignty and to usher in the kingdom of God on earth.

Now think about this. How likely is it that a group of Jews would make up a story about a christ and include in the story that the christ was killed by Israel's enemies? And they didn't even say he was killed heroically in battle. Rather, they came up with the most humiliating way for a criminal to die--by public crucifixion. And then they went about trying to win people over to this criminal-on-the-cross. I think that is an absurd notion.

If anything, I think Jesus' followers would've gone into damage control mode as a result of the crucifixion. They wouldn't have invented the idea. At worst, the idea that Jesus' died for sins was an invention meant to redeem Jesus' death on the cross. And the resurrection was invented to maintain the notion that Jesus was the christ in the face of his death.

In my opinion, the crucifixion of Jesus is about as certain as any historical event could be without having video footage. I have a hard time taking anybody seriously who denies it.

And that entails that Jesus existed, which is why I also have a hard time taking anybody seriously who denies the existence of Jesus.

Creating life

I read an article this morning on the BBC called "'Artificial life' breakthrough announced by scientists". Basically, they put a DNA molecule together by copying the DNA of a known bacteria, then put the DNA in the cell of an already existing bacteria. And it worked.

Personally, I think that is really cool. I mean think of the possibilities if we could build DNA ourselves. The reason humans have five fingers, birds have wings, and snakes lack legs is because of their DNA. If we really understood how DNA is able to code for all these features, and if we're able to build DNA molecules, then the possibilities seem limitless. We could create all sorts of things that barely even resemble what already exists. We could recreate dinosaurs. We could make horses with wings. We could make super-humans.

Of course there'll be an ethical debate about how we should use this technology. If they won't even allow human cloning, there's no way anybody is going to allow hybrid pseudo-humanoids. I'm just saying we could.

I think that with this technology, there is potential for great danger and great good. We've already seen what can happen when software engineering capability falls into the hands of the wrong people. Some people can't resist the urge to create computer viruses and spread them to as many people as possible. It's only a matter of time before some nut creates a super virus or a super bacteria that will reek all kinds of havoc. Biological warfare will spare no one.

But at the same time, it seems at least possible to create organisms that fight cancer or other diseases. Maybe a person's own stem cells can be taken out, re-engineered, and inserted back into the person that would allow the person to live longer. I really can't tell you what the possibilities might be, but I suspect there are all kinds of good possibilities.

So is it worth it? Is the potential good worth pursuing given the potential harm? To an extent, I'm not sure it matters, because we have such a thirst for knowledge--such a curiosity--that this is going to be explored regardless of the dangers. If government ever tried to put a stop to it, somebody in a secret lab somewhere would do it anyway. But I think at the very least, people ought to be made aware of the potential dangers.

Somebody posted a question this morning on Yahoo Answers wanting people's thoughts. One nut on there thought it somehow proved that life could've emerged through purely naturalistic causes. How he figured that the ability of an intelligent being (namely, humans) to engineer life is somehow evidence against Intelligent Design is beyond me. It sounds to me like the very definition of Intelligent Design. I wonder if the nut on Yahoo Answers thinks that since we've shown that humans are able to engineer cars, that cars could have emerged through purely naturalistic causes.

And that raises an interesting question. Suppose we decide to create, from scratch, a few different living organisms and implant them on a planet somewhere far away from earth. And then suppose those creatures evolved to the point that they could ask such questions as, "Where did we come from?" "Why are we here?" And suppose they discovered the theory of evolution. And suppose a small number of them said, "Wait a minute. Our DNA shows evidence of intelligent design. We think life was engineered by an intelligent being." They would be right, wouldn't they?

Think about that for a minute. Their evidence for intelligent design would be no different than our evidence for intelligent design. And they would be right to draw that conclusion. Is it unreasonable, then, for us to draw that conclusion?

But most people say our DNA does not show evidence of intelligent design. Think about that, too. It means that if we engineered life, put it on another planet, and it evolved into smart critters like us, they would never be able to tell their they had been engineered. They would never be able to tell that their DNA was the result of intelligent design. In spite of the fact that their DNA was the result of intelligent design, there would be no evidence for it. And the most justified conclusion for them would be that they emerged through a blind natural process.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Catholic Answers

I signed up at the Catholic Answers forum a long time ago so I could participate in the discussion forums, and I've been getting emails ever since. I just want you to see the subject line of the one I got today so you can tell me what you think.
Invest in Catholic Answers Live--The Dividends are Eternal

Is it just me or does that come across sounding a lot like something Johann Tetzel was doing back in the 16th century? Of course endulgences didn't have eternal consequences since purgatory wasn't eternal, but it does sound similar, doesn't it?

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not accusing Catholic Answers of anything. I'm sure what they mean is that if you send them money, you will be contributing to a ministry that is trying to bring people to salvation in Christ. I don't think they are saying that if you send them money, you'll be better off in eternity. But you have to admit it sure comes across that way, doesn't it?

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Fine tuning and many worlds

Today, I have a question for you. I posted this question on Yahoo Answers, but nobody answered it, so now it's your turn.

According to the fine tuning argument, there are a whole bunch of constants that have to have very precise values before life could exist in the universe. Some examples of these constants include the gravitational constant, the strong nuclear force, the charge of an electron, etc. There are about 26 of them, and some of them are ratios between the values of other ones. If any one of these constants were different by a smidgen, then life would not be possible. Since we live in a life-permitting universe, and since it's unimaginably unlikely that the universe would be life-permitting, it appears that the universe was rigged. Somebody intentionally tuned the values of these constants with the intention of making the universe habitable to living things.

There are a number of ways to respond to this argument. You could say the physical constants are not contingent at all, and that they could not have had any different values. There's a necessity about them. Who knows? If they could not have been otherwise, then they're not really "tuned" at all.

Or you could say we got lucky. The fine tuning argument only renders it improbable that the universe would be life-permitting. It doesn't render it impossible. Crazy things happen.

Or you could say that any sort of universe is equally improbable, but that doesn't make it at all remarkable that it would turn out some particular way. If there hadn't been life, there would've been something else that would've been unique to that universe. There's nothing special about life that makes our universe remarkable. Choosing life as the object toward which the universe was "finely tuned" is arbitrary since any combination of values for the constants would've yielded something unique. Personally, I think this is the strongest argument against the design argument from fine-tuning.

Or, you could say that if the universe had not been life-permitting, then we wouldn't be here to be thinking about it. I've heard this one a lot, but this seems to be about the worst response to the fine tuning argument. I think the firing squad analogy adequately reveals the weakness in this type of response.

But I didn't want to talk about any of these responses today. I wanted to talk about the "many worlds" or the "multiverse" response. In this response, it is granted that the constants of the universe are contingent. They could have been otherwise. And, in fact, they are otherwise in many different universe. According to this view, there may be a gazillion different universes. The more universes there are, the more likely it is that at least one of them would have the right combination of constants to be life-permitting. We just happen to live in one that is. And, in fact, every thinking thing that considers the fine tuning argument lives in such a universe.

Lemme use an analogy. Let's suppose only one person bought a lottery ticket. And let's suppose they won the lottery. If that happened, we might all be justified in thinking the game had been rigged. Somebody intentionally tweaked the balls so they would produce the same numbers that were on the ticket. But if millions of people each got a lottery ticket, it would not be remarkable at all that at least one of them would have the right numbers. And the more lottery tickets there are, the more likely it is that somebody would win.

So it is with universes. No matter how unlikely a life-permitting universe is, the more universes there are, the more likely it is that one would come along that had just the right combination of constants. That's right. The unlikely may be likely, depending on your background information.

(That reminds me of the debate about miracles, and how some people think miracles are unlikely because they're so rare and statistically improbable, and how some people respond by saying that even statistically unlikely events may be likely in light of further background information. It would be ironic if somebody thought it was absurd to suggest that anything unlikely could be likely (like the resurrection) while at the same time subscribing to the many universes idea.)

One might respond by saying there's no evidence for universes other than ours, and the explanation is ad hoc. But here, I don't think it's clear where the burden of proof lies. Both sides are positing an entity or entities to explain how it is that the universe is finely tuned for life. One side posits a designer. The other posits multiple universes. If fine-tuning alone isn't enough to justify belief in either a designer or multiple universes, and if we have to look elsewhere for verification that such entities exist, then both theories fail. Why should we presume one explanation until the other gets further verification? Why does one side have a burden of proof the other side doesn't have?

That's not really where I wanted to go, though. I'm going to get to my question now. Both sides agree about one thing--that the constants of the universe are contingent. They could've been otherwise. This question is mainly for the many worlds people. If it's true that the constants can vary in value from one universe to the next, and there's no necessity about them having any particular value, why is it that they don't vary within universes? Why, for example, don't we find some electrons in our universe that have different charges than other universes? Why isn't the force of gravity stronger with some masses than with other masses? Why is there such uniformity in our universe when it seems like there could've been diversity? Is it just an incredible coincidence that every particle of the same kind is exactly like every other particle of the same kind all over the universe, or is there a physical cause for it?