09 Aug 2009

Amongst Other Gifts, God Gives Us Objective Truth

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Perhaps seeing that I do not restrict my self-important ramblings to merely economic matters, lately Scott Sumner (the Little Professor Who Could, who is now receiving NYT coverage) has branched off into philosophy. In a recent post he wrote:

What we are doing in physics is constructing models that can predict, and that therefore are very useful. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that we are doing any more than that. This doesn’t mean that prediction is the only way to test a new model. In earlier posts I argued that the more elegant model often proved superior in the long run, and thus by induction we can infer that this might be true of future models as well.

The problem with debates over objective and subjective beliefs is that we have no God-like entity to referee the debates. So all we can do is muddle through on our own. Science can make a lot of neat predictions, and hence is very useful, but only for our purposes….

The scientific community is full of people who think religion is bunk and the humanities are not providing “real knowledge,” but rather just some light diversions to keep us entertained. OK, so then where does ethics come from? I suppose scientists might say it develops through evolution (evolutionary psych) or they might attribute it to the forces of culture (a mere social convention.) But even evolutionary psychologists like Stephen Pinker say that just because we (men) have evolved to think a certain way about violence and rape, doesn’t make it right. And most people would also say that merely because a culture is bigoted against a minority group, doesn’t make it right. So where do our moral intuitions come from? Science is unable to answer that question in a way that doesn’t sound like we are describing morals as “mere social conventions.”

So when the Alan Sokal’s of the world sneer at those who think Newton’s laws of physics are mere social conventions, I could sneer back at those in the scientific community by asking whether they regard our abhorrence at genocide as a “mere social convention.” So how do we resolve this? One way is through religion. Perhaps religion provides objective truth about ethics. But my solution is to meet the problem head on, and admit that everything we believe in both science and ethics is a social convention. Instead, let’s contest Sokal’s use of the term “mere.”

A lot of scientists suggest that it is immature to rely on religion as a crutch. I won’t take sides in this dispute. But if being grown-up is realizing that we have no one to fall back on but ourselves, then in what sense can we say there is a distinction between what we believe to be true (i.e. what predicts pretty well) and what is objectively true? Who will tell us when we are wrong?

As with his views on inflation, here I commend Scott for taking his position to its ultimate conclusion. Without a God (not necessarily the Christian God of course), your own worldview should make you wonder if the very notion of “truth” is simply a useful trick that humans invented at some point during our evolution.

I remember when I was an atheist (in college) and my Christian friend gave me a C.S. Lewis book; I think it was The Abolition of Man. Lewis had an argument trying to show that if you subscribe to the Darwinian account (at least the philosophically-charged account, that says it was random mutations on which natural selection acted), then you had no basis for trusting the conclusions of your brain.

At the time I thought that was a goofy argument, because whether you’re a Christian or an atheist, it is a separate question whether you think “Truth with a capital-T” exists, or whether there is a meaningful distinction between objective and subjective statements.

Yet now I understand Lewis’ point, especially when I read thoughtful essays like Scott’s. In the Christian view, if the story is true, then you have a reason to trust your intuitive feelings on things. For example, the reason “A is A” seems like it must be true, is that it is true–objectively–and God equipped us with the ability to discern truth.

But on the strictly evolutionary account, there is no way to know. The story is consistent with truth really being true, versus merely appearing to be true. (It’s like saying, “Is a leaf really green, or is that just an evolved perception?”)

I’m sure some of the hardcore Austrians who read this blog, think that Sumner’s epistemological musings just show what a nihilist monetary crank he is. But I think that’s unfair. Given his premises, I think Scott has reached the logical conclusion.

And just as his opinion that Bernanke was too tight in the fall of 2008 is–for me–damning evidence that something is horribly wrong with his framework, so too does his opinion that morality and scientific propositions are social conventions, constitute damning evidence that there is something wrong with atheism.

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