Thursday, July 27, 2017

Prescriptive Oughts and Atheism: Round 3

Sometimes I miss comment replies for a while.

Then I will notice them and note that I should write something in response, but life happens and I forget.  This is one of those times.

I was having an enjoyable exchange with apologist Maverick Christian (referred to as MC), and his last comment on that thread was left unanswered.  Since the exchange is interesting I've decided to put another actual post on the topic up rather than leave good content buried in a comment thread.

I actually hope that MC doesn't mind my responding so late in this fashion, and I apologize for there being such a delay.  That all said, lets begin.



MC's main contention is that moral facts, specifically what he calls prescriptive oughts can not be reduced down to natural facts. He describes his views well here:

"So what are my semantics? “Descriptive facts” and “descriptive oughts” are those that can be expressed entirely in descriptive language (confer my earlier comment on what I mean by “descriptive language”). A “prescriptive ought” is that type of ought that is not a descriptive ought (and thus can’t be expressed entirely in descriptive language); it prescribes and is not purely descriptive, e.g. “You should not torture infants just for fun.” Prescriptive ought facts are thus not descriptive ought facts. By “natural facts” I mean facts that can be expressed entirely in the language of psychology and the natural sciences, and since such language (of chemistry etc.) is entirely descriptive, natural facts are descriptive facts. My definition of “moral ought fact” uses the prescriptive ought, and since prescriptive ought facts are not natural facts (because natural facts are descriptive facts), moral ought facts are not natural facts given my definitions of “moral ought facts,” “natural facts,” etc.
  
MC's main contention with moral naturalism (ie. that moral facts reduce down to natural facts) is that the only way I can make that work is to "redefine morality" so that moral ought's are no longer "prescriptive oughts":
That said, the statement “moral ought facts are natural facts” can be true if you use different semantics from what I’m using; e.g. if the “moral ought” is a descriptive ought, having no properties besides purely descriptive ones. Whether “moral ought facts are natural facts” is true depends on what you mean by your terms.
This is where MC has made a serious error.  An atheist can accept his account of moral oughts being "prescriptive oughts" in so far as they are not purely descriptive, and they can do this not by "redefining morality" or even rejecting his moral semantics.  Let's examine how by first looking at MC's own succinct summary of his views in a syllogism:
(1) All natural facts are purely descriptive (they can be stated entirely in descriptive language).

(2) Moral ought facts are not purely descriptive (it is false that moral oughts have no properties besides purely descriptive ones).

(3) Therefore, moral ought facts are not natural facts.
In order to reject MC's conclusion (3) I need to deny either (1) or (2).   MC is alleging that in order to reject (3) I must reject (2), but that is not what I've been arguing.  In fact, I've argued that I reject (1), the idea that all natural facts are purely descriptive.

I'm not arguing with MC's moral semantics, I'm arguing with his views on the nature of natural facts.

To support my rejection of (1) lets get a few things clear.

Both MC and myself share something in our views of moral ontology: we both endorse a kind of moral reductionism. What we disagree on is what moral values specifically reduce down to.

As an atheist, I'm inclined to argue that moral facts reduce down to natural facts. As a Christian, MC is inclined to argue that moral facts reduce down to supernatural facts (ie. facts about god's nature specifically).

The thing with reductionism is that when we argue that one thing reduces down to something else, we are stuck using descriptive language when we talk about that thing. 

However since we both agree that moral facts are inherently prescriptive, we are necessarily saying that facts about <reduction> are prescriptive.


This is what I had charged MC with in the previous exchange: 
All you're doing is baking the "prescriptive ought" into a descriptive fact about god. That kind of move can just as easily be done with a subset of natural facts.
To which his reply is rather enlightening: 
That’s not true if by “descriptive fact” we mean “a fact that can be stated entirely in descriptive language” since by definition a prescriptive ought cannot be stated entirely in descriptive language. So if “God has an essential prescriptive ought-to-be-obeyed quality” is a fact, it is not a descriptive fact. Prescriptive ought facts cannot be descriptive facts.
Emphasis mine.

First off, MC is begging the question when he says "if god has a prescriptive ought to obeyed quality" then "god facts" aren't purely descriptive.  That's the whole point of the debate! An atheist moral naturalist can do the same kind of "baking in" action with regards to natural facts:

If some natural facts have a prescriptive 'ought not be done' quality, then those natural facts are not purely descriptive facts.

A moral naturalist would argue that the nature of "torturing babies for fun" is inherently evil and that evil things intrinsically "ought not be done". 

In fact one thing that becomes clear is that regardless of what we base our moral system on, the prescriptive ought is always going to be baked-in to what we base our moral system on, whether it is natural facts or god.

Keep in mind I'm not rejecting the prescriptive nature of the moral ought, I'm rejecting the premise that natural facts can't be prescriptive.

One last bit that will be relevant here: Can the atheist hold that some subset of natural facts are inherently prescriptive without begging the question like MC does by using morality as an example?

I think the answer is yes, and I can give two examples: Mathematics and Logic.

I think facts about logic and math can reduce down to natural facts, or at least not require some kind of special ontology (thought there are those who hold  opposing views).  The idea is that it's not inherently contradictory to hold to a natural or even agnostic view of logic and math.

So if I say that I ought to accept the conclusion of a logically valid argument with sound premises, and that I ought to accept that conclusion in any possible world - that's a prescriptive ought.  Same when it comes to accepting the conclusions of a mathematical proof or theorem once you have accepted the axioms that proof is founded on.

There just is something about the fact of the matter given those logical and mathematical truths that obligates us to believe them.  I'd argue it's much the same when it comes to morality being objective.

2 comments:

  1. First off, MC is begging the question when he says "if god has a prescriptive ought to obeyed quality" then "god facts" aren't purely descriptive. That's the whole point of the debate!

    I doubt the atheist is debating what the theist's own conception of God is. Theists often predicate a prescriptive "ought-to-be-obeyed" quality to God, but some people have a different conception of God (one could define God in such a way that he would not have a prescriptive ought-to-be-obeyed quality), so YMMV. The upshot is that whether "God exists" is a purely descriptive fact depends largely on which conception of "God" we're working with. If it's the sort of deity that can be expressed entirely in descriptive language, then it's a purely descriptive fact; otherwise it's not.

    An atheist moral naturalist can do the same kind of "baking in" [a prescriptive ought] action with regards to natural facts:

    I don't think you're going to be able to do that without changing some semantics of what a "natural fact" is. By definition, a "natural fact" is a fact that can be expressed entirely in the language of psychology and the natural sciences. As long as that language is purely descriptive, premise (1) is true, and the subject matter of chemistry, physics etc. seem to concern purely descriptive facts, facts that make claims of what is without claiming what (prescriptively) ought to be; facts like the an electron's mass or the acidity of a solution.

    Unless you're going to change the subject matter of those fields, I don't think you're going to be able to correctly reject premise (1). If you disagree and think the language of psychology and the natural sciences somehow includes language that is not purely descriptive, a specific example would be nice.

    Can the atheist hold that some subset of natural facts are inherently prescriptive without begging the question like MC does by using morality as an example?

    I think the answer is yes, and I can give two examples: Mathematics and Logic.


    Neither of those fields deal with prescriptive oughts as I have defined the term. Roughly, descriptive statements are statements that make claims of what is without making claims of what ought to be, and descriptive oughts are any oughts that can be expressed entirely in descriptive language. For example, "If you want to do well in school, you ought to study" is a descriptive ought when it means "As a matter of practical necessity, you need to study to do well in school" where the latter is a descriptive statement. A prescriptive ought is defined as that type of ought that is not a descriptive ought; it prescribes without being purely descriptive.

    Rules of math and logic are "prescriptive" in the sense of yielding descriptive oughts (describing what rules you need to follow to accomplish a particular goal; e.g. if you're goal is to accept true conclusions, you ought to do such-and-such) but they don't involve prescriptive oughts. It may be true that you prescriptively ought to accept conclusions of arguments you believe to be sound or theorems you believe to be true, but the fact that the prescriptive ought exists here isn't strictly part of mathematics or logic proper (philosophy of logic is a different ball of wax). There is no theorem of mathematics that the prescriptive ought exists (ditto with logic proper); theorems just tell you what conclusions follow from certain axioms. The existence of prescriptive oughts falls in the domain of philosophy, not mathematics or the natural sciences.

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  2. It occurred to me that it would help to do a bit of philosophical analysis of what a "fact" is when considering whether moral facts are natural facts.

    A "fact" is what makes a truth-bearer true. For example, the statement "Sam is sitting on a chair" would be made true by the fact that Sam is sitting on a chair. Note that other facts associated with Sam sitting on a chair aren't involved in making "Sam is sitting on a chair" true. For example, it doesn't matter whether the chair is made of wood, plastic, or metal. The fact that Sam is sitting on a chair is what makes the statement "Sam is sitting on a chair" true. Sam is sitting on a chair is thus not the same fact as Sam is sitting on metal chair, because the chair being metal isn't what makes the statement "Sam is sitting on a chair" true; the statement would be true even if Sam were sitting on a wooden chair.

    Similarly, consider that the statement "Adolph is torturing infants just for fun" would be made true by the fact that Adolph is torturing infants just for fun. The fact that the action is morally wrong may, by metaphysical necessity, be associated with the fact that Adolph is torturing infants just for fun. However, if per impossibile the action were not morally wrong but it was still true that Adolph is torturing infants just for fun, then the statement "Adolph is torturing infants just for fun" would still be true. It might be true as a matter of metaphysical necessity that there cannot be a change in moral facts (e.g. "Adolph is doing something morally wrong") without there being a change in non-moral facts (e.g. "Adolph is torturing infants just for fun"); in philosophical parlance we would say that moral facts supervene on non-moral facts. Nonetheless, non-moral facts aren't the same thing as moral facts.

    Similarly, what makes a statement like "the solution is acidic" true is that the solution is acidic. Such natural facts are descriptive. Even if prescriptive ought facts supervene on certain natural facts, the natural facts themselves are not prescriptive ought facts. It remains true that the language of psychology and the natural sciences is purely descriptive in nature, and as long as that's true, natural facts (facts that can be expressed entirely in the language of psychology and the natural sciences) are descriptive facts.

    What about God? Is the statement "God exists" a descriptive fact? That depends on our theology. Suppose our conception of God is that he's a being that is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good. In that case, what makes the statement "God exists" true (if such a being existed) is the fact there exists some x that exemplifies the predicates of omnipotence, omniscience, and perfect goodness. The fact that this x has other predicates, like a penchant for chocolate pie (let us suppose) isn't part of what makes the statement "God exists" true. Similarly, x having a prescriptive ought-to-be-obeyed quality wouldn't be part of what makes "God exists" true. In that case, "God exists" would be a purely descriptive fact.

    If however having a prescriptive ought-to-be-obeyed quality were part of theology, then "God exists" would not be a purely descriptive fact.

    If we redefined the natural sciences so that it included prescriptive ought claims in its language, and defined "natural fact" as "a fact that can be stated entirely in the language of psychology and the natural sciences" then potentially some natural facts could be prescriptive ought facts. On the standard definitions however, the language of the natural sciences is purely descriptive, and all natural facts are descriptive facts.

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