Dear Docktor , I have now had the privilege of reading two excellent papers by you for your philo classes. A lot of your work places a big emphasis on morality. And of course you have spoken of "natural" facts as in some way constitutive of moral realism. You have also characterized procreating as a "morally inadequate" act.
Forgive my possible ignorance if you feel you have already offered a decisive answer to what I am going to ask; or maybe I just missed it. Still, I ask anyhow: How, exactly, do you square your emphasis on moral realism and moral adequacy/inadequacy, with your endorsement of hard incompatibilism, which purports to show that none of us can have free will in the sense that we deserve moral praise or moral opprobrium for our actions? I'd also like to see a post by you elucidating these "natural facts" in the moral realism thread.
Really enjoyed the paper for your feminism class, as I conveyed to you in an e-mail.
I had an interesting discussion with PeculiarPhilosopher in chat last night, during which he said that he was a moral realist. I am not.
I take moral realism to be, broadly, the idea that there are mind-independent, objective moral facts about the world to which propositions refer. Moral anti-realism, on the other hand, need not (necessarily) imply moral nihilism, on my view. It simply denies that there are, or can be, objective moral facts about the world. It does not follow from this that morality is meaningless.
As I mentioned in chat, if no sentient agents existed anywhere in the universe, there would be no moral facts. PP rejoined that "moral facts" supervene on minds; but if this is so, it seems that moral realism is still false, because for something to supervene on a mind means it cannot be objective and mind-independent.
Also, even on the supervenience account, it is hard to understand what a moral "fact" is. I am prepared to agree that a moral something supervenes on minds, but I would prefer to think of it as a moral sensibility, and these sensibilities arise from a cohering web of ideas, relationships, experiences, and our evolutionary heritage (evolutionary ethics) such as, for example, reciprocal altruism. None of these sensibilities are objectively true, but they are not wholly subjective, either. They are intersubjective.
I pointed out to PP that the "moral facts" of ISIS are quite different from his "moral facts" and mine; and he responded that there are natural facts about morality that are point-of-view independent -- which means, I suppose, that he thinks the moral "facts" of ISIS are not facts at all but errors, and if ISIS came to know the natural facts about morality then they would, presumably, cease to behead, crucify and terrorize their victims.
I do not know what a "natural fact" of morality is supposed to be, though. I remarked, in our chat, that it sounded like moral Platonism, to which PP responded that some people subscribe to that. I am very dubious about any form of Platonism, even mathematical Platonism. I can't see a good defense of Platonism at all.
This discussion is relevant to the discussion of anti-natalism. Perhaps the anti-natalist might make more inroads in persuading others of his or her position by dropping talk of the supposed "moral inadequacy" of procreation, and simply argue that procreation is a mistake?
To paraphrase Richard Rorty, I think truth is what you can persuade other people is true. This need not be as dire as it might sound to a moral realist, however, for some reasons I have already given.
Ten books from Null, while I was in Southern Cal. Here are brief reviews of the first five I am reading/have read:
The first of the book stash that I read was Philosophy of Biology, a compendium of essays edited by Michael Ruse. Predictably, given the editor, who likes "balance," it's a bit of a mixed bag, with great excerpts from Aristotle and Darwin among others, but other stuff that was not so great, at least not to me.
The final section of the book, God and Biology, was a train wreck IMO. It had only three pieces, the first being The Book of Genesis. Er, that's not God and biology, it's God and abiogenesis, and of course it's also mythology. Nothing wrong with that, but if you're going to stick Genesis in there, how about giving it its own section along with four or five other creations myths?
The next piece was by someone named Joe Cain whose credentials are never listed (apparently the books has no "about the authors" section) At first it was quite good, a detailed account of the Scopes trial that included facts I never knew. But from this retelling of the trial the author goes on to draw conclusions about the drawn-out culture wars, suggesting among others that "Nietzsche the militarist" is to blame for these wars, and concluding the essay by asserting that many scientists don't want to mend the cultural rift between their evolutionary science and cultural Christianity. This presupposes of course that the rift can be mended, short of abdicating science.
The final essay is by the Christian theologian John Haught, who not only accepts evolutionary theory but positively revels in it; evolution is not just acceptable under Christianity, he asserts, but is actually entailed by it. Why? It's an example of God's never-ending creativity. Unfortunately, Haught, while he alludes to the pain and suffering among living things, the daily bloodbath that takes place as living things eat other living things, and the fact that 99 percent of species that have ever existed have gone extinct, he never returns to these sad facts to explain how they are consistent with a morally perfect God.
Perhaps Haught is to be commended for trying to reconcile Christianity with evolution, but I think all he really demonstrates is that Christianity, by prodigious contortions and rationalizations, can be made to "fit," at least somewhat, with any version of reality; yet it remains true that the depredations of the natural world are fully consistent with the assumption of metaphysical naturalism, yet need to be rationalized and explained away, accounted for, under the assumption of Christian mythology. That's one of many reasons that one should go with naturalism.
The second book is a collection of stories by the Soviet-era renegade writer Mikhail Zoshchenko, and they are all very funny (the Soviet authorities were not amused, however; although at least unlike the unfortunate Daniil Kharms, Zoshchenko did not starve to death in an insane asylum in Leningrad during the siege of Leningrad by the Nazis.) One of the best stories lampoons Soviet-era housing shortages. A man newly arrives in Moscow and finds the only place to rent is somebody's bathroom. So he does. "Now I'm living," he says, and gets married and raises a family in the bathroom. Finally, though, his wive's relatives insist on visiting, and presumably perhaps even moving in with them, and that's when the protagonist flees his bathroom apartment and Moscow altogether, though later he wires his family money.
The next book from the cache that I read was the 1957 David Wright translation of Beowulf. The author deliberately removes all the poetry from the book, making the poem entirely prose, even at times flat journalistic prose, and in a translator's note tries to justify this strategy, but I don't think his justifications have merit. You need the poetry in there. You can't simply translate the lovely "the whale's road" as "the sea." It isn't' right, damn it. But Null has mentioned a better translation that can be found online, which retains both the sense of the story and a good poetical translation, so I plan to look that up.
The next book up in the cache is Star of India, about the history of an iron-rigged sailing ship built and set to sea in 1863. I haven't quite finished it, but the point of interest is that this ship, wholly intact, is moored in San Diego's maritime museum, and Null, I and the others toured it.
Now I'm reading, from the Null cache, Memory of Fire: Genesis, by the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, and it's a revelation. The first book in a trilogy, it is an attempt to "rescue the kidnapped memory of all America." It begins with the creation myths of the indigenous Americans, before the arrival of Columbus et al, and they are splendid. The myths involve not just the creation of the world as a whole, but of everything in it: people, animals, the sun, the moon, the wind, laughter, fear, power, love, even potatoes. Here is how the potato came to be:
A chief of Chiloe Island, a place populated by sea gulls, wanted to make love like the gods.
When pairs of gods embraced, the earth shook and tidal waves were set moving. That much was known, but no one had seen them.
Anxious to surprise them, the chief swam out to the forbidden isle. All he got to see was a giant lizard, with its mouth wide open and full of foam and an outsized tongue that gave off fire at the tip.
The gods buried the indiscreet chief in the ground and condemned him to be eaten by the others. As punishment for his curiosity, they covered his body with blind eyes.
All the other myths are just as crazily inventive as this one -- they make the Hebrew and Greek myths look pretty lame by comparison. As to be expected, there are some myths that overlap with Judeo/Christian/Greek mythology -- there is a flood story, and a world-creation story stretching 11 days rather than the seven of the bible -- but there are others that have no analogue that I know of in ancient European/Mideast mythology.
One is an unresurrection story. On this account, long ago, every person who died was resurrected on the fifth day after death, and greeted with a huge party. This was a problem, though, because the resurrected dead were competing with the living for food.
Then one guy who was kind of a slacker died, and five days later the community prepared a huge feast, awaiting his return. But he didn't return until the sixth day, and all the food had grown cold. His wife yelled at him: "You good-for-nothing! Always the same good-for-nothing! All the dead are punctual, except you!"
Then his wife threw a corncob at his head and he died again, and his soul fled his body, a buzzing insect. And ever since that time, the dead have never again been resurrected.
The opening chapter on the indigenous myths closes with a grim premonition of the arrival of the White Man, those who wear clothes: Men wearing clothes shall come, dominate, and kill. (Italics in the myth)
Waterdrinker, priest of the Sioux, predicts that "the men who wear clothes" will weave a huge spiderweb around the world: When this happens, you shall live in square gray houses, in a barren land, and beside those square gray houses you shall starve.
Indeed that all came to pass, and now the White Man is finishing his job of weaving a spiderweb of heat-trapping greenhouse gases all around the world, and the whole world shall become a barren and starved thing, dead under the sun. Nice work, White Man!
The next section, which I've just begun, opens with Columbus arriving in America. The first thing he wants to know is where the indigenous people wearing gold in their noses got the gold. The author writes of the indigenous people's first encounter with Columbus and his men:
From today, everything belongs to those remote monarchs: the coral sea, the beaches, the rocks all green with moss, the woods, the parrots and these laurel-skinned people who don't yet know about clothes, sin, or money and gaze dazedly at the scene.
Reading the idiomatic English prose translation of Beowulf, one of some ten books that Null gifted me with when I was in California. (He is owed books big time!) Here is Wright's opening:
HEAR! We know of the bygone glory of the Danish kings, and the heroic exploits of those princes. Scyld Scefing, in the face of hostile armies, used often to bring nations into subjection, and strike terror in the hearts of their leaders. In the beginning he had been picked up as a castaway; but he afterwards found consolation for this misfortune. For his power and fame increased until each of his overseas neighbours was forced to submit and pay him tribute. He was an excellent king. And here is the translation of the opening by Leslie Hall, at Gutenberg:
Lo! the Spear-Danes’ glory through splendid achievements The folk-kings’ former fame we have heard of, How princes displayed then their prowess-in-battle. Oft Scyld the Scefing from scathers in numbers From many a people their mead-benches tore. Since first he found him friendless and wretched, The earl had had terror: comfort he got for it, Waxed ’neath the welkin, world-honor gained, Till all his neighbors o’er sea were compelled to Bow to his bidding and bring him their tribute: An excellent atheling!
Granted the second, poetical translation is more obscure, but the translator also includes side notes to aid comprehension. The second translation is musical to my ear; and I can let comprehension suffer a little. Wright begins his work with a note on his translation. He argues against lines like this: "The twisted-prow sailed over the whale's road," preferring instead the straightforward: "A ship sailed over the sea." He also objects to "blade-hate" for "blood feud." In short, Wright rejects attempting to translate the original's kennings (compounds) and also rejects trying to draw out the alliteration of the original. Another poeticism for the sea, "swan's way," is also rejected. It's just the sea, the sea, the sea.
I think Wright is mistaken in this and while I am enjoying the content of his translation of the narrative, I think he has ransacked it of all poetry and music. Any thoughts?