Philosophical Questions and One, No, Two Answers

Back in 1641, or maybe 1639, René Descartes asked whether he (and therefore we) might be seriously mistaken about some pretty important stuff, i.e. everything:

I have for many years been sure that there is an all-powerful God who made me to be the sort of creature that I am. How do I know that he hasn’t brought it about that there is no earth, no sky, nothing that takes up space, no shape, no size, no place, while making sure that all these things appear to me to exist? Anyway, I sometimes think that others go wrong even when they think they have the most perfect knowledge; so how do I know that I myself don’t go wrong every time I add two and three or count the sides of a square? 

… I am driven back to the position that doubts can properly be raised about any of my former beliefs…. So in future, if I want to discover any certainty, I must withhold my assent from these former beliefs just as carefully as I withhold it from obvious falsehoods.

So I shall suppose that some malicious, powerful, cunning demon has done all he can to deceive me – rather than this being done by God, who is supremely good and the source of truth. I shall think that the sky, the air, the earth, colours, shapes, sounds and all external things are merely dreams that the demon has contrived as traps for my judgment. I shall consider myself as having no hands or eyes, or flesh, or blood or senses, but as having falsely believed that I had all these things. I shall stubbornly persist in this train of thought; and even if I can’t learn any truth, I shall at least do what I can do, which is to be on my guard against accepting any falsehoods. [Meditations on First Philosophy]

Then, about a month ago, Stan Persky responded to Descartes in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

I’ve always been uneasy with Descartes’ insistence on certainty, at least with respect to ordinary human experience (and to a range of moral questions) …  

How can we be sure the whole thing isn’t a dream or simulation or parallel universe? Answer: we can’t be sure, but why do we have to be sure? Why do we have to prove the Demon wrong? And anyway, isn’t the claim about the Demon’s deception so extraordinary that the burden of proof ought to rest on those making the claim that there is a Demon? Why isn’t “pretty sure” that I’m not now dreaming good enough? Given that our perception and interpretation of reality is supported by a) generally reliable sensory evidence, b) intersubjective human agreement, c) “scientific” explanations and evidence, and d) absence of evidence that anything else is going on, why isn’t that good enough for most of our purposes?

Answer #2: It’s good enough. We don’t have to be certain.

(This blogging thing can be pretty darn easy.)

God and Modern Moral Philosophy

I’m halfway through J. B. Schneewind’s The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy. “Modern” in this case doesn’t mean “contemporary”. Philosophers generally consider Rene Descartes to be the founder of modern philosophy and he died in 1650. Schneewind’s book concludes with Immanuel Kant, who died in 1804. (Philosophy isn’t one of those disciplines that leaves the past behind.)

Moral philosophy hasn’t stood still since Kant, but he’s still a very important figure. Kant argued that in order to act ethically, we must subject ourselves to a moral principle (the Categorical Imperative) that we freely and rationally adopt. We must be autonomous agents, not someone else’s followers.

However, as Schneewind tells the story in the first half of The Invention of Autonomy, moral philosophers in the early modern period were deeply concerned with an issue that wasn’t modern at all. Plato presented the problem in one of his early dialogues, Euthyphro: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”. Or, in modern form, “Is the morally good commanded by God because it’s morally good, or is it morally good because it’s commanded by God?”.

Not surprisingly, there were a variety of answers to this question. Some philosophers and theologians argued in favor of “intellectualism”: God commands what is morally good because God recognizes the principles of morality. It isn’t in God’s power or nature to prefer the immoral to the moral. Richard Cumblerland, for example, argued that morality is rational and God is supremely rational. Hence, God’s commands must be the right ones. God cannot make mistakes.

But if God couldn’t have issued different commands, doesn’t that limit God’s power? And doesn’t it mean that morality somehow stands apart from God? It would seem that God might not even be necessary for morality. Concerns like that convinced some to argue for “voluntarism”: God’s commands define morality. God voluntarily chose the morality we have, so what is moral or immoral would have been different if God had chosen differently. Descartes was an extreme voluntarist, for example. Schneewind notes that, according to Descartes,

Eternal verities must depend on God’s will, as a king’s laws do in his country. There are eternal truths, such as that the whole is greater than the part; but they would not be true unless God had willed them to be so [184].

Maybe it made sense for the early modern philosophers to spend so much time trying to figure out what God was thinking, and whether God could have chosen differently, and how morality and God are related. Living in a world subject to the idiosyncratic decisions of kings and queens, it must have been natural to view morality in terms of divine commands.

Eventually, however, the intellectualist side prevailed (to the extent that God remained in the picture at all). It became clear that morality and religion aren’t necessarily connected. All that speculating and arguing about the relationship between God and morality was an enormous waste of time. If you don’t believe me, read the first half of The Invention of Autonomy.