Sorry about all the $2 words in the title. Even if that didn’t make sense, I hope the rest of the post still does.
A couple years ago I wrote a post titled “Reconciling the Crucified Messiah“, where I summarized a naturalist perspective on the origin and ascent of a religious sect that was centered around a crucified leader; which is admittedly a bizarre turn of events. That post briefly discussed the development of Christian atonement theology as a consequence of the crucifixion and how that reconciliation was critical to transforming a seemingly insurmountable setback into a hallmark of the faith. But this new atonement theology did not entail that the salvation afforded by the atonement is only available to those who believe, and so here I would like to consider another curious yet synergistic development of the Christian movement: the introduction of doxastic soteriology (doxastic = “related to belief” and soteriology = “doctrine of salvation”, so a doxastic soteriology is a doctrine in which salvation is in some sense dependent on belief). I propose that this was largely driven by eschatological concerns (i.e., related to the end of the world \ final judgment).
Despite my Christian bubble having been popped almost four years ago, it only recently occurred to me that belief in Jesus (as messiah, lord, savior, etc…) might not have been viewed as a requirement for salvation in the earliest days of the movement. A doxastic soteriology certainly doesn’t appear to have been part of the mainstream Judaism to which Christianity owes its roots and, from a naturalistic perspective, it seems highly unlikely that Jesus himself taught that people had to believe in him to be saved, despite what the Gospel of John portrays.
So what happened?
There are several points of contact which show that the Nazarenes (early Christians) shared some influences with the Qumran community (whether directly or indirectly). Among these is an eschatological perspective in which the demarcation between the elect and the damned fell not along ethnic boundaries, as was implied by traditional Judaic eschatology, but rather around ideological boundaries. To the Qumran community, the elect were those who aligned themselves with the community lifestyle and ideology. It appears that this perspective was in part driven by a perception of religio-political corruption (e.g., the “wicked priest”) and the wish to exclude undesirable religious figures from Yahweh’s kingdom – a theme that is mirrored by the gospel narratives and was quite possibly an element of Jesus’ teaching. A similar shift was also occurring throughout greater Judaism in the second temple period. Ever since the Babylonian exile, the Jews had been trying to figure out how to deal with the diaspora and cultural intermingling. The rise of decentralized worship in synagogues and the need to accommodate cross-cultural relationships spurred a decline in the traditional ethnocentric eschatology that the earlier prophets sought as they lamented the conquests of Israel. As a whole, the Judaic quest for future justice was gradually transitioning from an ethnic foundation toward ideological foundations.
Combining this with the widely accepted understanding of Jesus as an eschatological prophet, we can imagine that Jesus and his followers considered themselves to be bearers of the gospel, where the good news was not that Jesus was going to die for your sins, but rather that the end of days was imminent – perhaps even facilitated by Jesus’ prophetic ministry – and that you too could be part of the eternal kingdom if you repent and adopt the lifestyle and ideology of their sect. This message may have even neglected ethnic boundaries. From this we can see that the seeds of a doxastic soteriology were present in Jesus’ message, but were only germinating. After the crucifixion, more changes came into play.
First, we have the Nazarenes continuing to proclaim their eschatological message despite their messiah having been killed and, furthermore, cursed by Yahweh as a consequence of having been hung and left exposed on a tree (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). Though the Nazarenes appear to have wanted to remain Torah observant, their message became increasingly disagreeable and divisive as they continued to exercise midrashic liberty in defense of Jesus as messiah. As a result, the gulf between their sect and mainstream Judaism grew and they were, as a whole, steadily pushed and pulled away from participation in Jewish communities.
Then, as we consider the growing chasm between the Nazarene sect and mainstream Judaism we can turn back to the Qumran example to see what happens – namely, an eschatological evolution in which the opposing party is excluded from salvation (that is, participation in the eternal kingdom). As a close relative of Judaism, the early Christians had very few distinctions that could be used to draw that eschatological line in the sand. However, above all else, there was one thing that separated them from mainstream Judaism: belief that Jesus was the messiah. And so Christianity’s doxastic soteriology was born. As that chasm continued to grow so also did the prominence of belief as a central dogma of the Christian soteriology, reinforced by the synergistic coupling of a new atonement theology that was dependent on the object of that belief and independent of the temple sacrifices. Going one step further, the adoption of this eschatologically motivated doxastic soteriology also served to emphasize the significance of Jesus and so was perhaps instrumental in his eventual elevation as coequal with God.
It is generally agreed that Ezekiel was initially composed within the period of the Babylonian exile, and more importantly, well before the 165 BCE date attributed to Daniel under the Maccabean thesis. This means that a reference to the person of Daniel in Ezekiel 14 would seem to confirm the existence of the person described by the book of Daniel, which is more consistent with the view that it is an early composition. I didn’t give this a lot of attention in my prior study because it wasn’t obvious, for several reasons, that this was a reference to the Daniel of interest (note that it is spelled slightly differently – דנאל in Ezekiel, versus דניאל in Daniel, with an extra yud – so sometimes people give the Ezekiel name as Dan’el) but it also didn’t seem that this was very important given that I agree with the scholars who see that some of the narratives in Daniel probably have their roots in traditional stories that pre-date the Maccabean composition. Regardless, Tom presented this as a key evidence for the early authorship of Daniel and much discussion ensued.
The main thrust of the argument centered around the coupling of Daniel in Ezekiel 14:12-23 with Noah and Job as an exemplar of righteousness, and as exceedingly wise in Ezekiel 28:3. The primary alternate candidate for Ezekiel’s reference is to a Dan’el character known from Ugaritic sources and Tom argued that he is a poor fit due to his non-Yahwist allegiances. Eventually, Nate pointed out that Ezekiel refers to the “sons and daughters” of Noah, Daniel and Job, which is inconsistent with the life of Daniel from the book of that name. This piqued my interest and so I went back and re-read the passages from Ezekiel, at which point I was struck by a new insight.
Ezekiel 14:12-23 presents itself as a message from Yahweh to Ezekiel, offering insight into the nature of his relationship with Israel in light of the Babylonian conquest and exile. Here’s my summary of the message:
If I [Yahweh] pour out just one type of wrath (famine, animals, sword or plague) on a nation, the righteousness of people like Noah, Daniel and Job will only save themselves and no descendants will be spared. However, if I pour out all four forms of wrath on Jerusalem, you will see a remnant survive and their unrighteousness will show you why I brought punishment.
So it seems like there’s two points being made: (1) the calamity which has befallen Jerusalem was not undeserved, and (2) the Jewish nation is special in that God will show them mercy and not wipe them out entirely. Now, if this is a proper understanding of the passage – and I think it is – then it makes absolutely no sense that Daniel, a member of the Jewish remnant, would be named as a member of the nations that would be devastated by the wrath of Yahweh in contrast to the Jewish nation (though Job and Noah, as pre-Abrahamic characters, do fit). For the first time, it became clear to me that Ezekiel was not referring to a contemporary young Jew named Daniel, regardless of whether he was referring to the Ugaritic Dan’el or not.
The Letter to Aristeas
At one point, Tom suggested that my post on the authorship of Daniel had incorrectly identified the commissioning of the Septuagint in the 3rd century BCE as only including the Torah – he believed that the Letter of Aristeas shows that all the books now included in the Tanakh were part of that effort. If this were true, and Daniel was included in that translation, then this would be a defeater for the Maccabean thesis. So I went back and reviewed the Letter of Aristeas again.
First, a little background. The Letter of Aristeas is generally believed to be a later forgery that draws upon a series of possibly historical events which resulted in the commissioning of the official Greek translation of the Jewish law, known to us as the Septuagint. It claims that this was instigated by a suggestion posed to Demetrius of Phalerum, who was in charge of Ptolemy’s effort to collect “all the books of the world” for the famous Library of Alexandria. The majority of the letter references the “law of the Jews”, but in one spot – a purported memo from Demetrius to Ptolemy – it suggests adding translations of “The books of the law of the Jews (with some few others)”. This is the closest thing we get to a statement that the translation included more than the Torah. However, the purported letter from Ptolemy to the Jewish High Priest Eleazer only requests the law and the subsequent response from Eleazer to Ptolemy says that “I selected six elders from each tribe, good men and true, and I have sent them to you with a copy of our law“. At the very best, the initial memo which proposed “some few others” correctly represents the actual effort and those few extra books just weren’t mentioned in the later correspondence. In that case, there may be a slim chance that Daniel would have been included. It seems much more likely, however, that the earliest translation effort only covered the Torah.
References to Daniel in …?
One of the other key arguments raised by Tom was that Daniel had been referenced by several different pre-Maccabean texts. I had not previously encountered this claim for some of the alleged references, so I decided to dig in and take a look. As before, this would be devastating blow to the Maccabean thesis if true.
Tom proposed that “Tobit contains clear verbal allusions to Daniel.” Here he cites a paper by Roger Beckwith that argues for several different links to Daniel from pre-Maccabean sources. In that paper Beckwith states that:
[Tobit] envisages a second more general return from exile … as the prophets of Israel spoke concerning them, which is to take place at ‘the time when the time of the seasons is fulfilled’. This glorious future rebuilding of Jerusalem and its temple is probably seen by the author as foretold by Isaiah and Ezekiel respectively. But who fixed ‘the time when the time of the seasons would be fulfilled’ for this to happen? Could it be anyone but Daniel?
I was interested to discover that the times and seasons language of Daniel was in fact present in Tobit. However, contra Beckwith, it does not put these words in the mouths of the prophets – rather, this is the language used by Tobit himself in his prophecy. So the direction of borrowing is not established, or even inferred, and it seems equally likely that the author of Daniel picked up this language from Tobit (or from the apocalyptic communities influenced by Tobit).
It’s also interesting to note that Tobit claims to take place after the Assyrian captivity, which would predate Daniel. This means that if one is to argue for the early authorship of Daniel by suggesting that Tobit borrowed from Daniel, then it logically follows that the arguer accepts that there is precedent for Jews producing pseudoepigraphical works that were written after the fact to appear as if a known event had been prophesied. Sound familiar?
Tom also claimed that “the Hellenistic Jewish historian Demetrius . . . had already . . . drawn up . . . [a] chronology of the seventy-weeks prophecy in Daniel 9 in the late third century B. C.” The footnote pointed us to another publication by Roger Beckwith, but one which is not readily available. Regardless, it didn’t take long to figure out that the original source is Clement’s Stromata Book 1, where it says:
Demetrius, in his book, On the Kings in Judaea, says that the tribes of Juda, Benjamin, and Levi were not taken captive by Sennacherim; but that there were from this captivity to the last, which Nabuchodonosor made out of Jerusalem, a hundred and twenty-eight years and six months; and from the time that the ten tribes were carried captive from Samaria till Ptolemy the Fourth, were five hundred and seventy-three years, nine months; and from the time that the captivity from Jerusalem took place, three hundred and thirty-eight years and three months.
I could not extract any allusion to the 70 weeks of Daniel 9 (which proposes 490 years from the Babylonian exile to the final judgment) and Tom never responded with an explanation.
Another claim was that “Ecclesiasticus [Sirach] clearly refers to Daniel and contains a prayer that the prophecies of Daniel would be fulfilled soon“. This points us to Sirach 36:6-7 and 14-15, which says:
 Rouse thy anger and pour out thy wrath; destroy the adversary and wipe out the enemy.  Hasten the day, and remember the appointed time, and let people recount thy mighty deeds. …  Bear witness to those whom thou didst create in the beginning, and fulfill the prophecies spoken in thy name.  Reward those who wait for thee, and let thy prophets be found trustworthy.
This whole case rests on the prospect that the phrase “the appointed time” is being borrowed from Daniel and that the ‘prophecies’ are referring to Daniel and not any of the other eschatological prophecies in existence at the time. However, there’s no clear reliance on Daniel and the phrasing of an “appointed time” is also present in other eschatological contexts (Psalm 75:2 & 102:13, Habakkuk 2:3).
Lastly, Tom proposed that the visions of Zechariah only makes sense if Daniel was already known. I never really understood this argument and explanations were lacking, but I did discover something new in the process of trying to understand it: many scholars suspect that Zechariah and Haggai were once part of a single text. When taken as a whole, it appears very likely that the prophecies and visions therein point toward an expectation that Yahweh’s eternal kingdom would arise through the reign of Zerubbabel and the high priest Joshua (see Haggai 2:6-9 and 21-23, Zechariah 3:8, 4:9 and 6:11-13). This timeline is clearly different than one would expect if Daniel had been in view.
There’s a lot more that was covered throughout the discussion and a ton of material in the document Tom put together but at this point I don’t feel the need to systematically dissect every single argument. The time spent researching these additional claims substantiated my suspicions that the ‘clear’, ‘obvious’ and ‘conclusive’ evidence for an early authorship is just as suspect as the data I had already reviewed. In the end, I feel pretty comfortable with the conclusions I’ve reached thus far – namely, that the book of Daniel, as we know it, was largely constructed in the midst of the Maccabean revolt by building upon a pre-Maccabean tradition to introduce prophecies that appear to predict events contemporary with the author. More specifically, my guess is that chapters 3 – 6 form the core of the pre-Maccabean tradition (though probably not as a unified text, and perhaps only as oral traditions). The dream and interpretation in chapter 4 and the hand-writing interpretation of chapter 5 then served as the inspiration for a Maccabean redaction to create the chiastic text of chapters 2 – 7, adding the chapter 2 and 7 prophecies, all in Aramaic. A second contemporary redactor then built upon this to add the introduction in chapter 1 and chapters 8 – 12 in Hebrew. As a young and volatile text, different versions, additions and arrangements of these redactions were available and are reflected in the Greek translations (LXX and Theodotion). This is my best shot at accounting for all the data.
Yeah, I missed April. Hopefully I’ll make it up with an extra post in the near future.
The argument from design is perhaps the most intuitive and immediately accessible argument for the existence of God and can be analyzed from a myriad of different perspectives. We are surrounded by astounding complexity and see purpose in nearly everything. William Paley was reasonable to suppose that the watch infers a designer and the design proponents are reasonable to say that life is brimming with the appearance of design. But fifty years after Paley’s death, Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of the Species” and the design explanation suddenly had a legitimate competitor.
When I consider the arguments for these two options – design and chance – I find myself repeatedly drawn to a niggling question: if design is correct, why is life designed in a way that is plausibly explained without design? That is, if the designer wanted us to infer design then it would seem that he could have done better. Upon making this assertion, the apologist in my head immediately responds with an emphatic “Like how?”; inferring that I am posing an alternative that may not be viable. In this post my aim is to explore that very question through a few counterfactual conditionals.
Counterfactual #1: Reproduction
The first counterfactual condition I would like to consider goes something like this:
“If God really wanted to reveal himself through the genetic design of living organisms then the mode of perpetuating life would defy a purely naturalistic evolutionary paradigm.”
Those familiar with the intelligent design movement will recognize that this is similar to what those proponents often claim. The arguments are rife with assertions of irreducible complexity and astronomical improbabilities for the spontaneous assemblage of molecules while simultaneously disparaging any plausible explanation for the origin of those structures as ad-hoc speculation. Though it may be true that it is extremely difficult to verify and obtain evidence for those explanations, this does not negate the fact that those explanations are plausible and consistent with the regular mechanisms of nature. Perhaps with a little imagination we can identify a way in which the designer might have made it more clear that life was not a purely natural phenomenon…
Let the earth bring forth living creatures NOT after their kind…
We are really only familiar with one kind of life: the kind where amino acids combine in various ways and facilitate production of new life which is nearly equivalent to the parent(s). We see this in bacteria, flowers, frogs and people. We call it reproduction because the output is essentially a new instance of the producer(s). The variation from parent to child is relatively insignificant compared to the full volume of information embedded in the process. For our purposes here, we can essentially say that A => A => A => …, or, in other words, life form A only begets life form A and nearly all genetic information is carried forward.
Now consider an alternative to this. Collections of molecules regularly interact with other molecules in the environment to produce new molecular structures. In fact, this is exactly what is happening when our DNA guides the production of proteins. Those proteins are wholly different from DNA and go on to perform many functions and interact with other molecules in ways which leads to other changes in chemical structures. These reactions may carry on for some time, maybe indefinitely, without ever going through the same cycle of inputs and outputs. This is like reproduction, but with the key difference that the product has a markedly different chemical structure than the producer. I propose that this scenario hints at a possible second mode of life (unified material which is capable of producing new life) which looks something like:
A => B => A => …, or
A => B => C => D => A => …, or
A => B => … => Z => A => ….
The set of possible Rube-Goldberg like chains of production is enormous, so long as there is a recursive structure that allows us to avoid an infinite regress and constrain life as the set of outputs within the cycle. Otherwise – without recursion – every possible reorganization of matter would be “life” in some weak sense.
What are the odds that life, under the guidance of purely natural processes, would arise to operate under this second mode instead of the first? This question is probably answerable even if I’m not going to try and expend the resources to calculate it here. Regardless, it’s clear that the probability of this occurring by chance is significantly less than it is for the type of genetic duplication we see in the world now. So, at the very least, we have identified a possible mode of life which would have been a stronger indicator of design than is inferred by the current paradigm. Perhaps the current mode of life was intelligently designed, but if so, then it seems that intelligence might not have wanted us to know.
“If God really wanted to reveal himself by blessing us with advanced cognitive abilities then our cognitive limitations would not be compatible with the naturalistic evolutionary paradigm.”
Nate’s post was spurred by a theist’s claim that our advanced cognitive abilities, such as “philosophical insight, scientific acumen, or mathematical skills” defy natural explanation. I responded by suggesting that the converse seems more accurate.
We have become increasingly aware of our cognitive limitations as we have applied scientific methods to observation of human behavior, revealing a pervasive susceptibility to error through inherent biases and external influences (see Kahneman’s ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ for a nice introduction). In fact, the scientific endeavor itself is a process for minimizing those errors. I outlined my own criteria for discernment (Part 1, Part 2) a few years ago when I realized that it was an integral and necessary part of any truth-seeking journey.
But this goes beyond errors in judgment. A substantial body of research is showing just how fragile and malleable our long-term memories actually are. The memories of our past are largely reconstructed. Even our short-term memory is limited to about 7 items. Then there’s also the consideration of those alleged “mathematical skills”. Hasn’t the advent of computers shown us just how slow and error prone our math skills actually are compared to what is possible?
There’s really no telling where we lie on the continuum of intelligence. Yes, relative to other lifeforms on earth we seem to be at the top, but as technological advances continue to give us glimpses into the kind of reliability which may actually be possible you can’t help but feel like we aren’t so close to the pinnacle after all. So, if a designer is trying to reveal himself through the gift of advanced intelligence, then why do these findings make it so easy to imagine a better human who isn’t dependent on tools and processes to mitigate against cognitive error and limitations? The holy books which purport to capture knowledge of supernatural origin also seem to be consistent with a natural origin and betray the humanity of their authors. Where is the evidence of a supernaturally gifted intelligence? It seems more likely that we’re just doing the best we can with the empirically grounded capacities which have aided our survival over the millenia and that we owe nearly all of our advanced knowledge to the cumulative efforts of past generations who have worked hard to pass on their knowledge of “what works” so that we don’t have to rediscover everything.
Counterfactual #3: Natural Moral Consequences
When I saw the most recent post at 500 Questions about God & Christianity I couldn’t resist including it here. The post asks “Why doesn’t sin carry natural consequences?“, which he translates into a counterfactual near the end of the post when he says “If God is truly the creator, and the commands in the Bible are his (and not man’s), then we might expect to see the creator enforcing his rules through his creation, but we don’t (suggesting the laws laid out in the Bible were reasoned by men, and not God).” Or, to put it in the context of questioning biological design as revelation, “If God valued the revelation of moral truth (and thus his moral nature) more than our physical comfort then he would have designed us to discover moral truths in ways that are more efficacious than the way that pain teaches us to avoid physical harm”. Moral disagreement is rampant, yet we all pretty much agree that it’s painful to touch things that are hot or sharp.
If you haven’t already, I highly recommend checking out the 65 other questions. The whole blog is pretty much one giant counterfactual argument.
O man, who art thou that repliest against God?
Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?
– Romans 9:20 (KJV)
At this point you may wish to accuse me of naive arrogance in supposing that I can deduce how God should behave. You are right, but I ask that you hear me out. Certainly, if God exists, I am in no position to tell him how he should act, but this says nothing of how we are to interpret the evidence for his existence. If I wake on Christmas morning to find a set of binoculars under the tree made out of two toilet paper tubes, scotch tape and string, it is entirely reasonable to conclude that it was produced by my children and not by Nikon or Bushnell. Likewise, if God wanted us to infer his presence from the life found in his creation, then it seems he could have done better. If God directed acts of special creation, or the course of evolution, then it would appear that he chose to leave a signature which is indecipherable from what we might get from a lawful yet unguided process. Does this sound like the behavior of somebody who wants us to know him?
This observation offers no definitive conclusions regarding the question of whether a designer lies behind the structure of life and counterfactual arguments are inherently weak due to their speculative nature. What it does do, however, is offer an argument which generally favors either (a) the absence of a designer, (b) a designer who doesn’t reallywant us to find him through inference to design, or (c) a designer who is incapable of generating the most compelling inference to design. None of these fit with the classical theistic definition of God:
For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse
– Romans 1:20 (KJV)
Feel free to share any other counterfactual arguments against biological design as revelation, or conversely, to show me the folly of my ways.
Does belief in God improve cooperation? In case you haven’t seen it yet, a new study published today in Nature says that the answer is yes (a better summary of the study is available at ScienceNews). The authors go on to suggest that “beliefs in moralistic, punitive and knowing gods increase impartial behaviour towards distant co-religionists, and therefore can contribute to the expansion of prosociality.” In other words, the apologists have been right all along – we can’t be good without God.
Another bolus of research indicates that we are innately predisposed to God belief. Where the theist claims this as evidence of God’s fingerprint on our subconscious, the naturalist has responded with theories of agency detection. The research above has nothing to do with detection of agents but may still be relevant to the question of an innate God belief. While the benefit of agency detection certainly makes sense in the “you’re better off running away even if it’s only a tiger 2% of the time” sort of way, there’s still a leap to the theistic conception of an omni-God. Could it be that in the millenia which have ushered in civilization, a sort of natural selection acting on cooperation has bolstered and tweaked that innate predisposition into one which favors an all-seeing, omnipresent God who encourages our cooperation under every circumstance?
Chaos in the absence of belief?
The nones are growing at a rapid clip. Do these findings mean that the rise of an unbelieving society will degenerate into moral chaos? It’s obvious that Pat Robertson and much of conservative Christianity thinks that is the case, but perhaps we can flip the question on its head and ask whether the rise of the nones has in part been facilitated by the replacement of God with something else. Consider the far reaching scope of surveillance, the ubiquiti of mobile audio and video capture and the advances in forensics over the years. In the absence of an immediate deterrent, the odds that we will still be held accountable for our actions has increased dramatically over the last few decades. I wager that this has not escaped our attention. But if we are to take Steven Pinker at his word, we have also become more prosocial over time. So unbelief is on the rise concurrent with a rise in prosociality. The research cited above would predict the opposite result – unless some alternative is taking the place of God. Despite all the concern about our loss of privacy, perhaps Big Brother is just what we need.
2015 was an embarrassingly quiet year on this blog. I spent a lot of time early in the year reading and thinking on moral ontology and after outlining a big multi-part series of posts on the topic I found myself all wrapped up in semantics and disenchanted with the project, so I abandoned it and took a break. More recently the dearth of content has been primarily driven by a need to spend my time on other matters – a condition that will almost certainly persist for the next few months.
Regardless, I want to do better. There are still so many ideas and so much content that beckons. With a profusion of drafts patiently waiting in my queue, I know I can muster up a few hours a month to publish something. So that’s my goal. At least one post per month this year. Even if it means cheating and publishing some pithy article with minimal meaningful content – you know, like the three week late “new year’s resolution” article that you’re currently reading (January……..☑).
In preparation for this, I reviewed my drafts and consulted my Magic 8-ball and put together a sampling of article titles that I would like to try and complete this year. Let me know what you think looks most interesting and maybe I’ll prioritize accordingly. I look forward to many interesting discussions in the coming year. Hopefully.
Oh crap. Did I really just quasi-commit to one post a month?
Wow, it’s been nearly 6 months since my last post. How did that happen? Oh well. I still have a lot of posts in the works, and someday I hope to actually finish and publish them, but for now I just wanted to offer a podcast recommendation.
Phil Harland is a religious studies professor at York University in Toronto and runs a podcast called Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean. I just finished listening to the first seven series and, while much was familiar, it was very educational and a great way to experience a scholarly yet secular view on Christian origins and related topics. I highly recommend adding it to your collection of listening material. Enjoy!
I thought I had something like an epiphany several weeks ago and had finally identified a theory of ethics that I could say was, from my perspective, “most probably true”. I started writing and had drafted outlines for a 9-part series. I wrote, and read, and thought … and then I stopped. I hit a wall. The theory, like every other moral theory ever, was incomplete. There were unexplained assumptions and unanswered questions.
The pseudo-epiphany began with a realization that I had misunderstood the core definition of moral realism, which is
Despite my interest and reading on the nature of ethics these last couple years, my prior conception of moral realism did not align with the definition above. Through numerous sources and interactions I had been led to define moral realism as requiring ontological independence – that morality, in a sense, exists on its own in some way (though I should note that the SEP article does add the disclaimer that “some accounts of moral realism see it as involving additional commitments, say to the independence of the moral facts from human thought and practice, or to those facts being objective in some specified way”). I guess that’s what happens when most of your education on ethics comes from sources in the God debate. Regardless, the definition given above is much less restrictive in its application than I had previously conceived and as I pondered this I found that it opened the door to new explanations for our intuitions regarding the truthfulness of moral claims, though I eventually began to doubt that I was really heading toward any kind of solution. Even so, I’m not yet willing to admit defeat, so I’m calling in reinforcements (yeah, that’s you). I have several “open questions” and I would like to solicit your input to help me clarify some things. My first request is for answers to the question “What is a moral claim?”, but before you answer, let me give you something to think about.
First, note that the definition of moral realism assumes that we know what a “moral claim” is and, the more I think about it, the more I question whether we can define “moral claim” without presupposing moral realism. To help illustrate this, I’d like to run through a couple examples. Consider the following two sentences:
It is wrong to skin a cat.
It is wrong to turn a screw left to tighten it.
We generally agree that #1 is a moral claim and that #2 is not. Now consider the following:
It is wrong to turn a screw left to tighten it on a Wednesday.
Now the turning of a screw has become a moral claim. What changed? What is it that makes #1 and #3 moral claims, but not #2? As best I can tell the difference is in the referent of ‘wrong’. Claim #2 is referring to a goal – the outcome of tightening the screw, so ‘wrong’ in this context means that the goal will not be met. What is the referent in #1 and #3? Well, the referent seems to be morality itself – some standard of good and bad that isn’t really definable in any other terms without presupposing the existence of morality itself. That does not, however, mean that morality is thus necessarily independent of everything else. It simply means that our faculties are not equipped to define it by reference to something else. As far as I can tell, this leaves us with some form of moral realism – and it’s worth noting that under the definition given above, relativism is a form of realism. It is just a limitation on the scope of the moral truth.
As far as I can tell, this throws various forms of anti-realism out the window. There may be gray areas where it’s hard to tell whether something is or is not a moral claim, but at the extremes even an anti-realist can identify a moral claim from other types of claims. There must be something that they’re drawing upon to do that. That “something” may reduce to emotions, or some neurochemical state, but that’s still something. It’s real.
What do you think? Am I right about this? Does our ability to distinguish moral claims from other claims require moral realism?
PS: If you’re interested, this theory that I’ve put on ice is somewhere in the vicinity of contractualism with a contract that is based on negotiation between the core value judgements of all parties, rather than rational agreement, where by “core value judgements” I mean something like what we see in Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations.