In this (last) post in my series on the is/ought problem (part 1, part 2, neither strictly necessary, but read them anyway for definitions and background on the problem), I wanted to approach problem from a different angle.

Thus, in this post I shall not venture into epistemology, but instead present what I currently see as the best possible defense of holding moral beliefs which are not mere opinions, but also potentially binding for others too. (so you can say to another, “don’t steal” and that has a different feel to it than “don’t make funny faces to strangers” or “don’t order their sushi, but the fried chicken”)

Now, it’s hardly news in the 21st century that without religion and god, the common picture of the world one gets from modern western culture has a significant nihilistic vibe to it. We might speak of morals, but everybody disagrees about them. And the people whose moral convictions seem deepest are precisely the religious people whom western culture has long since proclaimed wrong and out of touch. And if religious morals are shaky, what shall we say about secular ones? A single look at the diversity of the world’s cultures is enough to indicate that there are hardly any sacred moral laws humans all independently agree on.

So, is there anything at all one could say about morality? Is it all just arbitrary social convention predicated on power relations and nothing more? Could we really object, in moral terms, to even the seemingly most horrific of acts? Or is it all just emotional biases upon emotional biases that make us feel like certain actions are genuinely evil? Could one person be ever justified in saying another person’s actions are morally wrong? Or is everything a matter of preference and mere disagreement, essentially nothing any different from supporting your favorite sports team? Continue reading Grounding a Sensible Morality Based on What Truly Is

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In my previous post (good for background on what I am discussing), I left off at a place which seemed good enough to justify much of our common sense. But there were costs to be paid for adopting a strange pragmatic epistemology. Namely, common sense is just one of many valid ways to look at the world.

Put simply, the upshot of pragmatism as a philosophy of knowledge is equating the concepts of truth and utility.

In some sense, my pragmatism is summarized as simply using different theories and explanations for different phenomena as long as they get the job done. In many ways, that’s pretty much what scientists do as well, but to a much more limited extent. A scientist looks at the world and tries to explain by positing some hypothesis. Then the scientist tests the hypothesis to see if its predictions match up with experiment (both for already observed and unobserved phenomena). If everything turns out alright, the hypothesis is validated and thus said to be true. 

Now, as I mentioned previously (and discussed at more detail here), science itself has a foundational problem in the problem of induction. As I currently see it, it is difficult to justify science as a valid way of acquiring knowledge about the world besides waving one’s hand and saying “induction works (at least so far) so who cares why”. And so it is that whenever someone tries to be all philosophical about the whole scientific enterprise, a scientists usually just shrugs and laughs at the absurd and self-evidently false suggestion that science doesn’t provide us with any new knowledge. Ignorance doesn’t produce iPhones, rockets or MRIs, after all. (and even though I disagree, it takes a lot of mental effort to explain why I can do so and still believe in science)


But even beyond induction, it is obvious (when one thinks a bit about it) that the scientific categories one uses in formulating hypotheses about nature are man-made and unlikely to unfailingly reflect the way nature really is. This is easier to see in hindsight. 

For example, before Einstein came along, time and space were thought of as separate entities unrelated to each other in any fundamental way. Einstein changed our understanding and we now speak of spacetime. 

Yet, theories that don’t make this distinction still work even though we know that they will break in certain specific conditions. Newton spoke of forces, but quantum mechanics does not. So do forces exist or do they not? Who knows. Who cares. The sophisticated way of putting this whole idea is “the map is not the territory”. 

In other words, even if your fancy theory explains the world in terms of a specific concept, it doesn’t mean that the concept necessarily corresponds directly to reality the way you think it does. For instance, Newtonian forces can be explained quantum mechanically so they still “exist” in some sense. But strictly speaking, they really don’t according to our current understanding.

Yet, from here, the obvious question arises: what if our current theories do just the same thing as those of Newton? What if the way we picture reality is nothing more than a figment of some scientist’s imagination? What if our vision of the universe is going to be fundamentally altered by the scientists of the future? (consider this: before the big bang theory came along in the last century, many believed the universe had been here forever! not a small conceptual change of understanding)

I personally don’t care. I have given up on knowledge about the way the world is (although I care deeply about being able to predict it). But common sense epistemology will never give up. In it, what the eyes see is what is really out there. And what we observe experientially is enough to give us knowledge about the way the world is… 


And yet, the only philosophically sound way of making sense of science is to justify it not as a means of producing knowledge, but as a means towards specific human ends — fighting disease, predicting nature, etc. 

We say physics is true because it works in telling us how fast a ball will drop or what will happen when two magnets get close to each other. Physics works for the goal of not being surprised by nature. But who knows if our theories (as conceptualized by us) match up with reality? Many scientists only really care about predicting what nature will do, not having some god-like ability to see the world as it is. *shut up and calculate*

Here’s the fun part: if one adopts an epistemology like mine, then science is not in any way special. If science can be justified on the basis of its working, then why not faith in god too? If the goal is to acquire meaning and to make sense of the evil in the world, an idea of man’s sinful nature certainly makes some sense. And even if the pictures two different theories paint are contradictory, the contradictions only matter if they make a difference for the goal at hand. Maybe there is no God, but if Christian morality works to produce stable societies / brings meaning to the faithful, could we not say it is true in some sense? Similarly, maybe quantum mechanics and general relativity contradict each other in the middle of a blackhole, but everywhere else one or the other theory applies to give us an answer we could confidently use in practice.

The point is, every form of knowledge we think we have is some sort of mental model which could well contradict other mental models we have. Yet, these contradictions don’t stop either model from working in the domain it was meant to work in. Here’s an example.

The way I see it, most scientific attacks against religion are much like critiquing flirtation for not being factually true. Sure, maybe a guy is not absolutely the best lover out there, or a girl might not literally like everything rough, say. But none of this matters — if both theorize the world as suggested by their flirtatious remarks, they will be able to predict the other’s behavior for all practical intents and purposes. I see religion in much the same way and I am not too bothered by any seeming contradictions with science or anything else I believe in. Ultimately, these ideas and concepts are all just tools, not the one true secret of the universe.


And here’s, at last, the crux of the real problem for me. All the epistemological peace of mind that pragmatism brings only serves to pose an absolutely frightening question. Namely, if we cannot truly know what is without also admitting contradictions to creep in in our models of the world, how are we to act when these contradictions matter?

Lest you think these contradictions are just some abstract mumbo-jumbo, here are a few examples — some silly, others not so much:

If one believes both that human life on Earth is characterized by suffering and that there is a heaven for everyone, then should death of a close person bring mourning or joy?

If one believes humans not to have free will, should one speak of responsibility, moral choices and other such loaded language? Should we hate criminals for choosing evil or should we look at them with compassion for having no choice in the matter?

If one believes the many-world interpretation, should one be so distressed by the horrors of history or should one look at them and reason that they were meant to happen in some universe, so why not this? (a sort of anthropic principle applied to suffering)

If one goes on a date and the waiter starts behaving rudely, does this indicate a lack of concern for the customer, a sign of exhaustion, a form of prejudice, a lack of social skills or something else? All of these contradictory models could explain the behavior, after all. But the tip one leaves at the end is certainly affected by which model one adopts.

Of course, one could up the stake from a mere generous tip to a whole life of freedom. We know for a fact that people get sentenced wrongly because judges first come to one conclusion only to later have their verdict reversed by new evidence. But it’s not like some smart prescient person couldn’t have believed that the verdict was wrong despite the evidence presented. Contradictory beliefs often explain the same behavior and it’s only our likelihood heuristic that allows us to make a decision what to do. But how certain are we in our ability to determine likelihoods? And how wise is it to follow when a human’s life is at stake?

Imagine this. It’s 2100 and robots are roaming around. No one knows if they are conscious or just really sophisticated machines that could well have fooled us if we didn’t know any better. For all we know, both alternatives are possible. At that moment, a person smashes a robot to pieces. 

Do we react like a murder had just taken place? Do we react like an animal had been slaughtered? Do we react like someone just dropped their TV from the last floor for fun or put a tablet into a microwave? What should we do with that person if multiple conflicting theories explain all the available facts and yet urge us to act in vastly contradictory ways?

The same question arises in the political arena too. If a politician misspeaks and says something offensive, is it a sign of an honest mistake or a peek into that politician’s well-hidden intentions and beliefs? Shall we vote for him/her anyway or criticize him/her into oblivion? (most likely both will happen along partisan lines — in politics, even when no one is lying about the facts, there will always be disagreement about what they imply about the world)

In fact, politics is rife with similar questions of intent. For example, criticizing the position of somebody from a protected minority can either be interpreted as a sign of bigotry or honest disagreement. Yet, the two explanations require vastly different responses. So, next time you wonder whether some politician is malicious or merely incompetent, you would basically be facing the same dilemma as me. (with the possible difference that for me both theories are true whereas somebody else might wish to withhold judgement; in either case, how one should act remains an open question)


Of course, in real life we employ heuristics such as “don’t attribute to malice what could be explained by stupidity”, “always assume the other is acting in good faith”, “don’t assume unnecessary hypotheses”, etc. Yet, while these work well to keep explanation simple enough without getting us into unnecessary conflict, they are in no way guaranteed to lead to justice, fairness, or the absolute truth about the world. 

And so, when one lets go of all the heuristics and all the conventional crutches, how does one resolve the question of how ought to act? 

I am not sure this question has a good answer. Maybe the crutches and the resulting imprecision are the best answer humanity could give? Or maybe not. Maybe progress is possible…

So, to summarize, there is not just the is/ought problem, but also the problem of actually knowing what the is is in the first place! And if one adopts a pragmatic epistemology, then the is is suddenly many different is-es at the same time! But the opportunity for action is but one!

At least in my pragmatic epistemology, knowing what to do is hella confusing and sometimes seems completely arbitrary. (**)

Nonetheless, if I make myself forget about these complications for a second, I am able to come up with some thoughts on bridging the is/ought gap in a somehow satisfactory way. But more on this in the last post of this series…

(**) These questions are absolutely fascinating to consider in the context of artificial intelligence that will not only need to know what the world is (i.e. form models of it), but also act on it to achieve its goals. It’s scary to think what could happen if a sufficiently powerful machine employed the wrong model about the world and concluded it should exterminate us all (or something even more absurd and painful like kill all men or women or children under 10, etc.)

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“How should I act in the world?” — probably the single most important question any one of us faces in our lives. Yet, in the real world, most people don’t really bother thinking too much about it. Quite understandably, one might say. After all, there are bills to pay, kids to feed and billion other small things.

Nonetheless, I still feel like, even amidst the chaos of everyday worries, one can greatly benefit from having a large-scale orientation to their actions. There has to be a method to our day-to-day madness. We cannot simply go aimlessly through life forever. And so, even the most practical of men would find it useful to have at least an inkling of an answer to how they should or ought to act.

Now, because it is so universal and evergreen, the question itself is far from new. Nor are the basic types of answers one can give to it. Religions and ideologies throughout history have all attempted to establish an ethical cornerstone on which one can base one’s life. We all know the important concepts: God, community, humankind, love, compassion, consciousness, equality, freedom, yourself. Depending on where you stand politically and philosophically, you probably believe you should act in accordance with / for the benefit of a quite few of these.

Yet, besides our emotional desires and fascination with these concepts, there are problems lurking in the shadows. 

Superficially, many concepts sounds pretty great. God is all-loving, freedom ensures lack of oppression, equality guarantees lack of discrimination. But as soon as one starts delving deeper into each of these concepts, the whole idea starts to fall apart. The edges become blurry and far from evidently good. Ask a committed atheist if God is good, a left-wing protester about freedom or a right-wing one about equality and you’ll soon be faced with the realization that every single guiding idea we have sucks if taken to an extreme (or, at the very least, is far from obviously good). Most people realize that wisdom is about combining a few basic ideas and adding footnote after footnote, but for the more philosophically minded even this approach remains a bit too unsophisticated. Continue reading Bridging the Is/Ought Divide and Other Simple Questions

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