Comments on Moral Realism

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The seductive nature of emotionally satisfying answers

Many of the world’s religions and ideologies are ultimately grounded in the notion that their particular ideology has satisfying answers to life’s questions. And the popularity of those ideologies are a good measure of the degree of satisfaction. But what kind of satisfaction do those ideologies provide?

Consider the satisfaction many children derive from hearing their parents explain that good children get presents from Santa. It makes perfect emotional sense that there should be someone watching everyone, keeping track of their behaviors, and rewarding only those who have been good. If this were not true, there would be injustice in the world, and that is simply emotionally unacceptable. This emotional drive for justice is but one of the many emotional drives that encourage children to readily accept the notion of Santa. Others might include the emotional drive to have some transcendent realm of magic we can somehow interact with, and the affection of a forever kind grandfather figure. 

But can we call Santa an answer to the question of the source of presents simply because of all the emotional holes such an explanation plugs? Clearly not if we place any value on the truth of the answers we accept. An answer that is emotionally satisfying is no more true than an answer that is emotionally undesirable. If we are to be rational, we do not accept facts and ideologies that make us feel good. In fact, we are extra cautious of facts and ideologies that have emotional appeal. We instead accept facts and ideologies that we have honestly assessed to be true. 

Yet, most of the world’s religions provide “answers” that are merely unsubstantiated plugs for our natural human emotions. Some god is presented as able to alleviate fear, loneliness, injustice, meaninglessness, and the yearning for certainty, and then the emotional appeal of such a god is said to be evidence for that god. This is not the way truth is properly assessed. 

The honest seeker of truth first commits to following the evidence down whatever path it leads, even paths that are emotionally unpleasant. Emotions are not our friend in our assessment of what may be true. Our emotions too often lead us astray. And many religions and ideologies are far to ready to encourage us to filter claims through our emotions since their systems of belief are built on claims tailored to emotionally seduce us. 

Once we commit to following truth down whatever emotionally dark path it may lead, the next step is to acquire legitimate tools for assessing truth such as general rationality, an awareness of logical fallacies and cognitive biases, and a deeper understanding of probabilities, logic and standards of evidence. 

It is much easier to follow our emotions as do those who follow unsubstantiated religious claims. Basing truth on our emotions requires far less effort. Millions of people around the world “know” they are right because it feels emotionally right. But I personally prefer to have my beliefs filtered through the more demanding filters of rationality. The question is essentially whether we want our beliefs to be correct, or to simply make us feel good.

Motivation Check

Thirty minutes ago, CNN Breaking News released the following headline.

A now-retracted UK study that linked autism to childhood vaccines was an “elaborate fraud,” a medical journal reports.

It’s hard to think of an issue that is not more emotional than autism. It involves children and parental responsibility. Love, guilt, shame, anger, and fear all played a role in a few parents and doctors taking 2 co-occurring events–the appearance of autism and vaccination–and running the notion past science before science had time to react. The the return to truth has now been much more painful than necessary due to the emotions of so many who hold to this myth. [http://whatstheharm.net/autismdenial.html]
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Default To Skepticism In Response To Affirmations

itemThis post is an elaboration of #3 from a list of things I’ve learned late in life.


How do we test the reliability of human knowledge? Don’t we have to first demonstrate what is true, then assess the percentage of the world that disagrees with that truth?

No. All we have to do is to determine the percentage of believers holding a world view that is logically exclusive of other dominant world views. Consider the logically exclusive religions of Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. Since Christianity has the largest market share of 33%, the percentage of humans who hold a false world view is at least 66%.

The interesting thing about this fact is that Continue reading

Warranted Belief And Psychological Demands

If we were simply minds designed to assess truth, life would be easy. We could simply test and adopt the evidential heuristics and algorithms that provide the most predictive successes, apply these tools to the evidence for and against a given proposition, then simply assign a probability to the truthfulness of that proposition. There would be no default position of belief or disbelief. There would be no bivalent conclusion of belief or disbelief. Everything would be comfortably a matter of epistemological probabilities that had no bearing on our survival.

However, we find ourselves active agents in a world in which we are driven to survive and secure happiness for ourselves and those we love. We find ourselves emotional beings that are very much disturbed by uncertainty. We are driven to “know”.

This drive to “know” is what pulls us away from proper probabilistic positions on the truthfulness of claims, and compels us to claim “knowledge” that a proposition is either true or untrue. While this bivalent approach to truth destroys our credibility as effective assessors of epistemological probabilities, it is nonetheless fully human.
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The Emotional Substrate Beneath Bloated Ontologies

We are most fundamentally emotional creatures, and the most fundamental realm of meaning is that of emotion. From the time we are infants, our emotional brains are busy sorting through these needy emotions and attempting to carve out a social identity, a set of things we can call “true”, and a code of behavior. But there is nothing as subjectively real as our emotions.

So we are compelled by these emotions to construct an edifice that can comfortably house our emotions by providing psychological, epistemological and moral frameworks over which we can then drape image, and respectably present ourselves to society.

Because the goal is to cloak our raw and muddled emotions under more presentable walls of definition, this enterprise is inherently illusory, and is most commonly self-delusional. Yet by the time we reach adulthood, we have constructed an elaborate edifice that, if matching the expectations of society, can assure our social well-being.

I’d like to deconstruct the various walls of meaning to expose the raw emotions that we often do not want to admit lie at the foundation of being.

  • Identity. This is the most transparent. Many realize that identity is static only where it is thought static. Personhood can change significantly over a lifetime. We say “this is who I am” at our peril. Constructing rigid walls of identity lock us into a self that forfeits a more colorful and fuller life. But, to avoid the swirling and persistent uncertainty and fear, our adolescent minds forge an identity that we often find hard to later modify. We begin to see the image that we have constructed upon our emotions as a rigid entity, and prior to our emotions. This self-delusion serves to maximize predictability and minimize risks, but it often leads to marginal lives. If we can recognize that it is emotions that are the substrate to our identities, and take measures to directly address those emotions rather than merely repainting the peeling facade the same color from time to time, life can become much more dynamic and enriching.

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