Some Moral Truths are Analytic

So I have been real busy preparing for next weeks ethis conference at Felician College in New Jersey. I will post the virtual presentation later this week if anyone is interested. Part of the argument that I make is that moral truths are analytic. Below are some thoughts on a different argument to that effect.

One common relativist argument starts from the observation that there is widespread disagreement on matters of morality. This is taken to be some kind of evidence that there is no real fact of the matter here. Where there are facts, like in math, we do not see this kind of disagreement. It is not as though we expect to find some tribe in some remote part of the world that thinks 2+2=5. Now, this is a bad argument, as I think is well known. The fact that there is disagreement about something does not imply that there is no fact of the matter about that thing. If anything it implies that we do not know the truth (that is, if both parties to the dispute know all the relevant facts and are rational).

But even so, it is often pointed out that there is less disagreement than there seems (James Rachels is one classic source for this kind of point) So, to take one kind of example, the Eskimo who leaves their child out on the ice to die does not think that they are commiting a murder. They think that they are performing an action that is justified. What we argue about when we disagree with the Eskimo is about whether the killing is justified or not. Both parties make a distinction between justified and unjustified killings. Both parties think that murder is wrong; the Eskimo denies that putting the child out on the ice is a murder (it is justified by the lack of resources, the length of the winter, and the belief that it is better to die quickly when you are less likely to notice than to have a long drawn out death with a lot of conscious suffering), we assert that it is a murder (it is not justified).

‘murder’ just means ‘unjustified killing’, ‘lie’ just means ‘unjustified falsehood/untruth’ and so ‘murder is wrong’ and ‘lying is wrong’ are analytic truths and mean ‘unjustified killing is unjustified’ and ‘unjustified falsehoods are unjustified’. All rational people know that these are definitional truths just like they know that bachelors are unmarried males or that brothers are male siblings. So the claim that the moral truths are analytic and that what people argue about is whether or not some action is a (say) murder or not, actually better captures what people do when they argue about morality.

Reduction, Identity, and Explanation

Suppose that, like me, one is inclined to believe that type-type identity theory is true. This will mean that the mental state type pain will be identical to some brain state. I have argued that we can class the brain into two kinds of state, brain states (synchronous neural firing in the same frequency) and states of the brain(chemical neuro-modular states). According to such a view mental states will be identical to one or the other (or a combination) of these two kinds of states. In my opinion, a mental state like belief will most likely turn out to be some state of (some part) of the brain against which there will be a certain synchronous pattern of firing. I haven’t argued for this, but it fits nicely with my view that the propositional attitudes consist in a qualitative mental attitude held towards some representational content. At any rate, this is neither here nor there. The question at hand is ‘is such a theory reductive?’

In one sense it is and in another sense it is not. So, in the ontological sense it is NOT a reductive theory. It can’t be. What it says is that there is only ONE thing there, the brain and its various states, and you cannot reduce something to itself! There are not two things, mental states and brain states; there is just one thing (if the identity theory is true). Consider some parallel examples. The musical note named ‘B flat’ and the note named ‘A sharp’ are the same note (ignore the problem of temperament, if you know what it is). There are not two notes here, though you may see some scales written with A sharp and others written with B flat they each tell you to play the same note. In telling you that I did not (ontologically) reduce B flat to A sharp or vice verse. It is useful for us to treat these notes as distinct even though we know that they are not. So too, the type-type identity theory is not an ontologically reductive theory.

In another sense, though, it clearly might be a reductive theory. This is the sense in which we reduce one theory to another theory. Traditionally we do this by positing (theoretical) identities that hold between the terms of one theory and the terms of the other theory. This will allow us to, in effect, deduce the reduced theory from the reducing theory (with the help of the identities). The identity theory has certainly been held in the form, but the reduction here is explanatory not ontological. At the end of a reduction like this we are not left with fewer things in the world, we are left with fewer theories about the world. To explanatorily reduce pain to brain states is to link the terms in our folk psychological/psychological theories to terms in our neuroscientific/physical theories of the world. Some identity theoriests have been reductive in this sense, others have not.

Now, the debate between the dualist and the materialist is clearly a debate about ontology. The dualist claims that there is more stuff in the world than the physical stuff. What this means is that the debate between the dualist and the materialist is NOT a debate about reduction in any sense. To assume that it is a debate about ontological reduction is to beg the question against the materialist, for it is to assume that mental phenomena are non physical from the get go. The fact that there can be coherent identity theories that are not explanatorily reductive (Davidson’s is one example of this kind of view) shows that the debate cannot be about explanatory reduction.

So the debate between the dualist and the materialist is in no way a debate about reduction.

Beating an Undead Horse

Ok, Ok, I know everyone has moved on from discussing the zombie argument, and I should be grading papers, but I just can’t resist…

In an earlier post I suggested the idea of a non-physical, or reverse-zombie. A reverse-zombie is a creature who is identical to me in all non-physical ways and which lacks conscious experience. Since reverse-zombies are conceivable Dualism is false. This is the zombie argument against dualism.

Imagine a world, W, where there are creatures that have both physical and non-physical properties. Now suppose that God decided to abolish the physical components of this world along with all physical properties. The resulting world would be a world just like W except minus the physical. It is conceivable that the non-physical creatures in W lack phenomenal consciousness. If W had been actual then ‘there are reverse-zombies’ would have been true, so this is a real possibility and therefore dualism is false.

RC objects to this argument and says that we need to ‘build up’ a non-physical description of this world rather than ‘subtract out’ the physical aspects. I disagree, but for the sake of argument let’s agree. So, to adapt a way that Kripke puts the argument. Let’s imagine God making a non-physical world where there are non-physical minds and nothing physical at all, let us specify this world (call it W’) in some non-controvesial non-physical terms and let us call this specificaltion NP. Then the zombie argument against dualism can be stated in exactly the way that Chalmers’ states his argument (where ‘Q’ is there are qualia, or phenomenally conscious experience).

1. NP and ~Q is conceivable

2. If (NP & ~ Q) is conceivable, then (NP & ~ Q) is possible 

3. If (NP & ~Q) is possible then Dualism is false

4. Therefore  Dualism is false 

The trick, of course, is getting (1). How is it conceivable that NP & ~ Q is conceivable? Well, it’s easy. Perhaps the non-physical minds are capable of doing math and logic but they never have pains or itches and tickles. In fact something like this is very likely what Descartes had in mind when he imagined non-physical minds existing seperately from the physical world. So, just like RC and company, I claim that phenomenal consciousness does not follow from a complete non-physical description of the world, and because of that dualism is false.

Top 10 Posts of 2008

OK, so the year isn’t over yet…but these are the most view posts so far…

–Runner up– Reverse Zombies, Dualism, and Reduction

10. Question Begging Thought Experiments

9. Ontological Arguments

8. The Inconceivability of Zombies

7. There’s Something About Jerry 

6. Pain Asymbolia and Higher-Order Theories of consciousness

5.  Philosophical Trends

4. A Short Argument that there is no God

3. Has Idealism Been Refuted?

2. God versus the Delayed Choice Quantuum Eraser

1. A Simple Argument Against Berkeley