Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Is it too risky to do philosophy if there is no God?

If we are created by a loving God, there is good reason to expect that what is good for us to believe—maybe even good for us as moral agents—and what is true tend to go together in the case of the most important beliefs. But if we’re not created by a loving God, then I wouldn’t expect the true and the beneficial to go together, except in the case of straightforward empirical beliefs about the external world, such as that apples are nutritious and that lions eat us. If there is no loving God, it would seem pretty likely to me that—as some non-theist philosophers indeed worry—it is good for us to have various philosophical illusions (say, that God exists).

This means that if one is sure there is no loving God, there is a pretty decent argument against doing philosophy. For either philosophy leads to truth or not. If it doesn’t lead to truth, there is little point to doing it: for then philosophy fails to promote the non-instrumental value of truth and we have no reason to think that it would be any more beneficial instrumentally than our pre-philosophical views. But even if it leads to truth, then unless we think there is a correlation between truth and utility, we are still risking endangering beliefs—such as in moral responsibility—that are crucial for human society’s functioning. Given how much is at stake here, it seems not to be worth the risk. One might hope, of course, that philosophy would lead to beliefs—true or false—that would let society function much better than it has done in the past, and that the hope of this benefit at least cancels out the fear of harm. But I think this is unrealistically optimistic: it seems far easier to undermine society than to build it up. (Think of the sweeping tragedies arising from Marxist and fascist philosophies in the 20th century.)

That said, one doesn’t need to be confident that there is a God to justify doing philosophy. One just needs a sufficiently high probability that once one takes into account the possibility that God exists and hence that truth and utility are correlated, the expected value of doing philosophy is positive.

And the above line of thought doesn’t apply to the kind of abstruse philosophy which is unlikely to connect with everyday life.

19 comments:

Walter Van den Acker said...

Alex

The fact that you wouldn't expect the true and the beneficial to go together doesn't mean that it is correct. I see no reason why the true and the beneficial would not go together in most cases. Why would, e.g. moral responsibility not be beneficial to us? That it is beneficial to us seems to me (and of course that's also subjective) about as straightforward as the fact that lions eat us.

Now, suppose by doing philosophy we came to the conclusion that moral responsibility is not beneficial? Then, I guess, by doing more philosophy, we would find out other things that are beneficial to us. The bottom line is that either there are things that are beneficial to us, or there aren't such things. If there aren't such things, then it is true that there aren't such things. But if there are things that are beneficial to us, then that's the truth. It may even be (although I see no reason to believe it) that philosophy comes to the conclusion that society would benefit more from illusions. But that would then also be true.

In short. Philosophy should always look for the truth. And philosophy should not start from a belief that there is a loving God and neither should it start from a belief there is no loving God. If there is a loving God, then philosophy could find that 'truth'. And if there is no loving God, philosophy could find that 'truth'. Philosophy should start with an open mind and be prepared to cope with whatever truth it may find.It's really as simple as that.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Walter:

It is beneficial to us to believe that we have moral responsibility and that there are moral facts: if we didn't, society would be apt to fall apart. But the question is whether what is beneficial to believe and what is true are correlated. For suppose we don't have moral responsibility or that there are no moral facts: it's still likely to be beneficial for us to believe that we have moral responsibility and that there are moral facts.

In the case of empirical questions, there is a good evolutionary reason to think there is such a correlation. If lions aren't dangerous to us, it's not beneficial to believe they are. But in the case of non-empirical questions, I doubt there would be a correlation, absent theism, optimalism or some other view on which value guides the arrangement of matter.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Alex

If it is beneficial to us to believe that we have moral responsibility, then it is true that moral responsibility is beneficial to us. So, if a philosopher is looking for the truth, he won't come to the conclusion that moral responsibility is not beneficial to us.
So, here you have your correlation. If moral responsibility is indeed important to us because otherwise society would be apt to fall apart, then it's beneficial to believe that we have moral responsibility. I really see no relevant difference between this and the lion scenario.
It certainly seems possible to have empirical evidence for this, e.g. by pointing at societies that lacked moral responsibility and have fallen apart as a result of this. I don't see why there couldn't be an evolutionary reason for this either, but that doesn't even matter. I don't care why drinking water is beneficial to me and drinking gasoline isn't.

Alexander R Pruss said...

A *belief* in moral responsibility is beneficial to us whether or not we actually have moral responsibility. If we don't have moral responsibility, the belief is still a useful illusion. But if philosophers were to discover that the truth is that we don't have moral responsibility, that would seriously damage that illusion.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Alex


Moral responsibility simply is the belief that certain acts are beneficial to us and others are not.
If it is true that certain acts are beneficial to us, then it is true that we have moral responsibility. So, I don't see how philosophers could ever discover that we don't have moral responsibility unless they were to discover that no act is ever beneficial to us, but in that case, the illusion doesn't matter anyway.
So, in this case, it seems clear to me that there is a correlation between truth and utility, because they are simply the same.
BTW, do you actually think that if you were to discover that God didn't exist, you would turn into a bad person? I am convinced you wouldn't, because you would still act in a way that is beneficial to us. I know I would, because the opposite would simply be irrational.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Certain acts are beneficial to cats and others are not. But cats have no moral responsibility.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Alex

As far as I know, cats have no beliefs either. If they do have beliefs, and they perform an action based on the belief that this action is beneficial, they have moral responsibility.
That is, on my definition. And that's the only definition that is relevant in this case.

Sara Pope said...

"If it doesn’t lead to truth, there is little point to doing it: for then philosophy fails to promote the non-instrumental value of truth and we have no reason to think that it would be any more beneficial instrumentally than our pre-philosophical views."

Is there no value in uncertainty? Perhaps, as B. Russell suggested once, the value of philosophy is not getting to "truth" or certain knowledge, but exposing us to the possibility that we could be wrong about whatever it is we generally take for granted, thus allowing us to seriously entertain alternative ways of living instead of being subdued by the "tyranny of custom" and so on.

awatkins909 said...

Hi Alex,

I also wonder whether it is true that if philosophy doesn't lead to truth there is little point to doing it? (Although I don't agree either with what Sara said is Russell's suggestion, that the value is that it leads us to think we might not have the truth!)

When I think of how I and a lot of others do philosophy -- e.g., metaphysics, even normative ethics -- it seems like a lot of times it involves working out different systems or pictures of the world (albeit, in my case, always holding in the back of my mind Catholic doctrine).

For instance, many philosophers like to reconstruct old thinkers' systems and take them down different interpretive paths (e.g., Plato, or Descartes, or Kant). Or you might have some philosopher who constructs a model of matter as gunky, and the very same philosopher constructs a different atomistic theory. It seems there are many philosophers like this, and much of their lives seems relatively unconcerned with discovering the actual, true view of the matter.

This sort of philosophical life seems intelligible to me, and frankly I feel this is a lot of what I myself like to do! (Again, albeit more often I try to construct theories that are consistent with the teachings of my faith -- although sometimes even I like to just think about what a Lewisian or Humean view of the world might be like if worked out.)

I admit I am somewhat puzzled as to how this is not pointless. But maybe it is somewhat analogous to an aesthetic activity -- painting pictures is like composing a symphony is like constructing a philosophical model. But like these things, philosophical construction can be pursued without worrying too much about the truth -- at least, that is how it seems many people behave.

(I should note that I don't think this only applies to unpractical fields like metaphysics. I think a lot of philosophers do this when constructing ethical theories, or doing political philosophy, working out models of the mind or of the will, etc. Often it even feels like some philosophical theologians do this!)

Sara Pope said...

@ awatkins909

I'm referencing what Russell says about the value of philosophy in the last chapter of the book The Problems of Philosophy (I don't know Russell's thinking beyond this, really). But a similar thought is echoed in Richard Taylor's Metapysics. I'm curious why you don't think Russell is suggesting that philosophy is valuable for helping us see that we don't actually have the truth. I mean, this seems if anything to arguably be a bedrock value of philosophy, illustrated by Plato. In its reverence for the truth, philosophy helps expose all the fakes.

Anyway I think the OP is also off in suggesting that a world absent a loving God is one in which the "true" and the "beneficial" would not be expected to go together. Why should this be the case? Platonism is basically founded on the claim that the True and the Good are co-extensive, but there is no "loving God" in the picture as far as I can tell, or any need for one. Also though, there is probably a particular conception of "truth" at work in the OP and unless we're on the same page about what truth is generally, we'd likely be talking past each other. (Same probably goes for "God" too..)

awatkins909 said...

Thanks for the reference Sara. Sorry for the ambiguity, I didn't mean to imply Russell hadn't said what you ascribed to him! I assumed that your ascription was correct, I just wasn't familiar with it myself. What I meant to say was that I don't necessarily agree with Russell's view.

I guess I just don't see it as intrinsically valuable to be uncertain about things, and moreover I think we *can* know some things with a high level of confidence, and it would actually be a disvalue to be uncertain about those things.

Maybe I'm misunderstanding what Russell is saying though, and the claim is just that for those things where our evidence merits uncertainty, philosophy helps us to be uncertain. And I suppose I do think that is a value of philosophy, though I wonder whether it is substantially different from the value of truth Alex mentions. More importantly, I doubt this is an intrinsically unique benefit of philosophy, or that it is a benefit of philosophy *per se*. It seems to me more like an accidentally good consequence of philosophy, rather than the end or point of doing philosophy itself.

Alexander R Pruss said...

1. I do think that making us less certain about things that we should be less certain about is actually a way of promoting truth. If my evidence supports a proposition P to degree 0.95 but my credence in P is 0.999, then I am risking being further away from the truth than I should given the evidence.

2. Trying out different theories is, I think, something that can be in the service of truth in multiple ways. First, sometimes we learn truths about the realm of possibility: for instance, one might learn the truth that gunky space is possible (or that it is impossible). Second, even if we are not trying to figure out which of the theories is true, we are supplying other people with a broader set of options one of which might turn out to be true. Third, if we can construct a decent theory T that fits all our data but on which some proposition P which we believe to be true is false, then that gives us some reason to doubt P, and hence pushes us away from the risk of having a belief opposed to the truth.

3. I agree there are other theories than theism on which the beneficial-to-believe and the true go together. But I do not think these theories are very plausible. For instance, Platonism relied on a theory of recollection and left largely unexplained the existence and power of beings that cognize the Forms while in the disembodied between-lives state.

Human Observer said...

Philosophy is imperative if there is no loving god. A loving god implies a teleological universe. One in which we need not worry too much. "God's Plan" takes care of us. If individuals suffer it is necessary to prevent greater suffering or in some way advances "The Plan"(TM). If humans go extinct then that too is part of "The Plan". Absent a loving god we humans are it. All we get is each other. To paraphrase Stanley Kubrick, in that case the universe is gloriously indifferent. Indifferent to any individual's welfare. Indifferent to any civilization's continued existence. Gloriously indifferent to even humanity's continued existence -- or our extinction. Only philosophy could hope to give meaning to such a meaningless existence.

Empirical facts, logic and science cannot bridge Hume's is-ought divide. They can tell us how things work. They can even predict what will and won't work for humans. You can look at experiments in human cooperation and see how cooperation breaks down without punishment. Too many people take advantage. You can look at breeding experiments selecting for individual vs group production including one with chickens. Industrial farmers raise chickens in caged groups. Selecting the most productive individual hens results in later generations becoming more and more psychotic. Turns out bullying behavior is heritable -- at least for chickens. Bullying behavior produces relative advantage. More production from a few dominant hens, less per group. Overall egg production goes down. Selecting the most productive groups results in latter generations becoming more and more cooperative. Less production per hen, more per group. Overall egg production goes up. The human cooperation and chicken breeding experiments act as stand-ins for general principles governing cooperating self-interested autonomous agents. Putting this together you can say that libertarianism must cause cooperation to break down amid intensifying competition that rewards bullying behavior. Absent regulation cooperation must break down as more and more individuals take advantage. The libertarian favored minimally regulated free market system rewards individual relative success. "The Market"(TM) plays the role of the chicken farmer. The easiest way to succeed is to bend the rules. To cheat. To bully. You cannot call this outcome "bad" without a value system.

Resource overshoot and societal collapse threaten our existence. We can’t keep using resources faster than our planet can regenerate them. Only philosophy could hope to answer the question “So what if my great-grandchildren are the last humans ever? I’m good right now.”

Absent an absolute supernatural truth standard we must confront Nietzsche’s words head-on. And perhaps we need something more than philosophy can offer. One hopes philosophy can at least offer answers to such basic questions as “Why is it good for humanity to exist?” Perhaps being human means we ought to embrace continued human existence. We know that injustice and cheating destroys human cooperation. Perhaps philosophy can speak to why that matters. Belief in supernatural punishment for human transgressions appears to emerge organically once cultures reach a certain threshold complexity. Some irrational beliefs may be necessary to motivate the selfless behaviors required for continued human existence. Perhaps philosophy has something to say there too.

Benjamin Stowell said...

From the point of view of survival, I agree that philosophy is extremely risky. We are the only animals I'm aware of that do suicide, a deeply philosophical act. What counts as good requires philosophizing, and so no matter the risks, philosophizing is necessary. If philosophy discovers that it's bad to be alive and good to be dead, say, through the problem of absurdity, then, against intuitions, we could choose the good by choosing death. Our worst fears may have been realized, but at that point it would have turned out that our fears were based on false beliefs.

Luckily, the existence of God prevents life from being fundamentally bad like that.

Alexander R Pruss said...

How about the following response to my original worry?

Either there are good and bad things, or there aren't.

If there aren't, then nothing is bad and hence nothing is harmful. And in particular philosophy isn't harmful. (Neither are the coronavirus and global warming.)

If there are, then the most radical sceptical hypotheses about the normative realm are false. And if we're right that there is good and bad, then probably we're also right that there is right and wrong. And right and wrong don't make much sense if nobody has moral responsibility. So we're probably right that there is moral responsibility. Since it's beneficial to believe in moral responsibility, at least here truth and the beneficial-to-believe go together.

Walter Van den Acker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Walter Van den Acker said...

This is almost identical to my response.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I thought you thought there was an analytic connection between good/bad and responsibility. That's not plausible (a world of oak trees would still have good and bad, but wouldn't have responsibility). But there is a plausibilistic connection.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Alex

I said, "If it is true that certain acts are beneficial to us, then it is true that we have moral responsibility. So, I don't see how philosophers could ever discover that we don't have moral responsibility unless they were to discover that no act is ever beneficial to us, but in that case, the illusion doesn't matter anyway.
So, in this case, it seems clear to me that there is a correlation between truth and utility, because they are simply the same."

So, no, there is no (direct) analytical connection between good/bad and responsibility, but there is at least a plausibilistic connection between choosing to do what's beneficial to us and moral responsibility, because willingly doing what is beneficial to us is acting in a morally responsible way. At least that seems pretty plausible.