For whatever reason, I’ve felt the need lately to try to articulate my broader philosophical view. And that’s always fun to share, especially when someone points out problems. So here goes.
CH’s principles of philosophy
1. My metaphysics ought to be continuous with science. I don’t deny that there are significant controversies within science, nor that there will be advances in science which supersede what is now taken as true. But nothing that I come up with about the natural world will be better grounded than what scientists largely presume as they go about doing their research, so it would be foolish not to take advantage of what they have been able to put together.
Chiefly, I draw the following from science:
I. Ontology of masses, events, forces, relations, etc.: I believe that, ultimately, the things that exist, along with their properties and relations, are those described by physics. Everything else is some kind of human invention or manner of speaking. For a wide variety of reasons, we find it useful and illuminating to speak of species, societies, art, rights, opinions, prejudices, colors, mutations, love, and so on, but all of these phenomena emerge, or seem to emerge, out of an overall picture which is itself generated out of the materials physics describes. It is a lot like “cloud-spotting” with a friend: you point out the cloud that looks like a crab, or a horse’s head, and from that description your friend is able to see what you see in it, but some shapes are more clearly identified than others, and none of them have very much to do with what’s really in the cloud. There is something about the cloud, surely, which allows it to be identified as crab-shaped rather than flower-shaped, but the crab-shapedness also has something to do with the perspective you have upon the cloud, together with the various sightings of crabs you have enjoyed, and the similarities between your sightings and those of your friend’s. Another way of putting this: physics tracks the primary properties of the universe, and any property not tracked by physics is a secondary property (or tertiary, if any Lockeans are reading).
(My attitude here is very reductionistic. I just can’t shake the belief that what the big stuff does is determined by the behavior of the smaller stuff which composes it. “Holistic” seems to me a synonym for “magic.”)
II. Denial of both determinism and contra-causal freedom: Small-scale events, like quantum phenomena, are frequently indeterministic: there is and can be no full explanation for why they happen. Somehow, they all sum up to large-scale events which are fully deterministic. Every large scale event can be (in principle) fully explained, and could not have been otherwise. In particular, human behavior is fully determined, and nothing a human does could have been done otherwise.
III. Denial of objective values: the universe does not prefer any state of affairs to any other. Every actual state is equally natural.
IV. Denial of special mental facts: consciousness emerges ultimately from the ontology of physics, and no souls or spirits or irreducible phenomenal properties are required to account for human experience.
2. My account of ethics needs to remain true to my metaphysics. From the above account, I am committed to believing that moral values are in the “cloud-spotting” category: entities of our perception, or secondary qualities, with only a loose grounding in what is real. Indeed, I think the grounding here is very, very loose.
I. Morality is rooted in an error. When we think in moral terms, we assume the truth of contra-causal freedom. We believe people have genuine choices, at least from time to time, and ought to be held accountable for those choices. When we make a claim of the form “I could have done X,” I think we typically mean: if I had been slightly different in my desires or beliefs, or attitudes, I would have done X. That’s true, but irrelevant, since of course I was not different in those ways, and could not have been, given the truth of determinism for large-scale events. So moral thinking requires some “let’s pretend,” or some forgetting (to paraphrase Nietzsche). We may be able to distinguish those determined actions whose principal causes lie outside an agent’s realm of typical control from those which lie within it (compatibilism), and there is some overlap between this distinction and many common distinctions between “free” and “compelled” action, but it’s not a perfect match.
II. But it sure is effective. The interesting thing is what emerges from this sloppy thinking: moral norms, or rules and principles, which go into the constitution of human communities, and then turn around and play real roles in influencing human behavior. Out of ignorance, we unwittingly invent seemingly nonsensical rules (like “You ought not lie,” etc.), teach them to our children, and the belief in those rules then governs, in part, what those children do. And, as it turns out, some rules tend to be better than others at ensuring the survival of those communities, etc. So, in the end, moral talk is ultimately nonsense, but very potent nonsense which has significant effects upon individuals and communities. Humans need this nonsense in order to survive as individuals, and as a species. (Not that there is any “objective value” in this.)
III. Morality is a composite of means of evaluation. Moral thinking consists in a broad mix of ways of evaluating actions – some basic and deontological (“Don’t lie!”, etc.), some more evaluative and consequentialist (“In this case, let’s do X, since most people are interested in doing that”), some aesthetic (“That’s simply an ugly way of behaving as a human being!”), and there may be many others. They are all rooted in what we are taught, on different occasions, for different reasons. When we argue over morality, all of these different means of evaluation play their roles, and often lead to opposing results, or paradoxes, controversies, and perplexities. That is unavoidable. And, again, debating over these conflicting results is a significant activity, to the extent that it leads to real actions, and real consequences. The universe doesn’t care what those consequences are, but individuals typically do.