December 11, 2014

Epistemology: Modest Foundationalism

From: Clear Philosophy - Philosophy Made Easy
(I would point the arrows in various directions,
 to show logical interconnections.)
By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, December 11, 2014

Epistemology: Modest Foundationalism

Epistemology is that branch of philosophy which studies knowledge. As a philosopher, I've come to think that the epistemological view called modest foundationalism is the way to go.

To understand modest foundationalism, it is helpful to look at foundationalism in general, classical foundationalism in particular, plus the latter's weaknesses.

Foundationalism-in-general is the theory of knowledge that there are two types of solid and secure beliefs: (1) basic beliefs, which ground or confer justification on other beliefs but are not themselves grounded or justified by other beliefs; and (2) those other, non-basic beliefs, which derive their justification from the basic beliefs via some appropriate belief-forming relation, such as deductive logic, enumerative induction, inference to best explanation, etc.

The set of properly basic beliefs of the classical foundationalist consists of—and is limited to—the following three, of which we have certainty.

(a) Self-evident beliefs. These are propositions seen to be true once understood: "bachelors are unmarried" (definitions); 2+2=4 (simple math); "if P then Q, P, therefore Q" (simple deductive logic).

(b) Incorrigible propositions. These are beliefs concerning one's own immediate experience which seem immune from doubt: e.g., that I feel pain.

(c) Sense-data. This is what's evident to my senses: I seem to see a tree (I am being appeared to "treely").

Significantly, classical foundationalism is problematic for two reasons. First, it self-refutes—it doesn't satisfy its own criteria. It's neither self-evident, nor incorrigible, nor evident to the senses. It's a philosophical thesis.

Second, it's a philosophical thesis that fails to include many ordinary beliefs obvious to common sense. Enter modest foundationalsim.

Modest foundationalists hold that the set of properly basic beliefs is broader than that of the classical foundationalist, and certainty isn't required. This larger set of beliefs is justified (modestly) on the basis that these beliefs are intuitively obvious in the absence of defeaters (reasons to think otherwise).

That is, what we take to be obviously true via our sensory/ rational/ moral intuitions is prima facie (not absolutely) justified. Such intuitions are very apparently true, and are legitimately believed as such in the absence of good reasons for thinking our intuitions are mistaken, though, logically, they might be mistaken.

Such intuitions are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Modest foundationalism includes not only the classical foundationalist's basic beliefs (a), (b), and (c), but also most or all of the following: (d) that we're not trapped in a matrix or a dream (we intuit this); (e) that the world has existed for more than five minutes (we intuit this, too); (f) that many of our memory beliefs are accurate (I remember what I ate for breakfast, so there's no need to cut open my stomach to check).

Also included are (g) that there are minds other than my own (yes, your friends have them!) and (h) that my ordinary perceptions of the world are veridical, i.e., I am more or less accurately seeing what's in the external world when I examine the world around me (when I read this article I know I truly see variously-shaped squiggly black marks on an actual piece of paper).

Also, some philosophers add (i): that there are actual, non-socially-constructed moral truths. We can "just see" (know/ intuit) that beheading babies is really wrong, that cutting children in half is really wrong, that rape is really wrong (though some suppress this knowledge).

Finally, some philosophers add (j): that God is real. This is a properly basic belief triggered (as opposed to inferred) when, say, we experience beauty in nature or read the Bible (though this intuition can be suppressed, too).

I think that (j) is correct, though I would add that, if one struggles with or doubts (j), its truth can also be inferred/ discerned via the evidence of the world—its design, its moral character, plus its evidence of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—all gotten through the use of (a) through (i) via the study of science, moral philosophy, and history.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, teaches philosophy at Providence University College.)

For further thought: 

November 28, 2014

Is moral realism odd?

By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, November 27, 2014

Is moral realism odd?

In Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, British atheist philosopher J. L. Mackie (1917-1981) argued famously that allegedly real moral properties are so odd (strange, mysterious, "queer") that this oddness counts against their reality. Because supposed objective (real, mind-independent) moral values are so unlike the facts of the physical world, we should doubt such values exist.

Below I set out three of Mackie's reasons for thinking objective moral values are odd, and in my replies I argue that Mackie's reasons fail.

1. Moral facts are not perceived as physical facts are perceived.

Reply: So what? It turns out that the abstract realm is not perceived as physical facts are perceived either, yet such perception doesn't count against the reality of the abstract realm.

Think of a triangle that has one 90 degree angle. Now recall (from geometry class) that for any such triangle, where c is the length of the hypotenuse (the side opposite the 90 degree angle) and where a and b are the lengths of the other two sides, we know that a2 + b2 = c2 is true.

Significantly, the truth of the Pythagorean Theorem is not perceived as physical facts are perceived (e.g., by examining a particular object or group of objects and then making an inductive generalization). Rather, we examine the idea of a right triangle and discern logical implications via rational intuition—yet we do not dismiss the truth of Pythagoras's insight into reality.

I submit that the perception of moral facts is of a similar order. According to C.S. Lewis, we "just see" objective moral values. (And these are embedded in the fabric of reality as mathematical principles are.)

2. Moral properties are not "out there" like physical properties are.

Reply: Really? Let's say that a live kitten is dipped into gasoline and then, for fun, put to flame. Does the moral horror stem merely from our subjectivity (our taste or preference) and not from "out there" in the external world as the heat from the flame is "out there" in the external world? Is the moral property of evil wholly subjective—not real, not "out there"? Let's do the same to a human child.

Surely, the value or intrinsic worth of a kitten or human person is real and is known (intuited) to be real when it's violated (though, it seems to me, a human being has much greater value than a cat). The wrongness of violating either creature is understood by the facts at hand: it is an actual being or bearer of value, flames will destroy this being or bearer of value in a very painful way, so torching/ torturing for fun is objectively wrong. We know this.

3. Moral properties, if real like physical properties, would be inert: they would lack action-guiding force.

Reply: Not so. The property may be inert in the sense that it's simply there. But we who submit our will to the objective good intuit the property as a reason to act (especially if the bearer of the property is being violated).

At this juncture, Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1711) might charge that I am committing the mistake of deriving an "ought" from an "is" (i.e., I'm leaping to a prescriptive statement from a descriptive statement, without justification).

In response, it should be noted that we can derive an "ought" from an "is" if the thing described in the "is" or fact statement is an actual moral property or value. If it's true—i.e., a fact—that X has objective moral value (real worth), then it follows logically from that fact that X ought to be respected, i.e., not violated or destroyed.

Are moral properties so odd as to not be real, as Mackie thinks? I'm not persuaded.

Surely, in view of our deep moral intuitions concerning the truth of human worth, the good of treating animals humanely, and the good of caring for the environment, it would be odd to think that moral properties are not real.

Now the metaphysical question arises: What—or Who—grounds this moral reality?

(Hendrik van der Breggen teaches philosophy at Providence University College.)

For further thought:

A comment (which is too large and too important for the comment section):

The passage below is from the book What is a person? (U of Chicago Press, 2010, pp. 442-444) written by University of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith. Smith's work (what he calls "critical realist personalism") supports the moral realist view that human beings truly have objective moral value (a.k.a. human dignity) and we know this.
What is it that most powerfully justifies moral commitments to things such as human rights, freedom of speech, the abolition of slavery, religious liberty, universal education, due process, racial nondiscrimination, the prohibition of torture and genocide, outrage against rape, the freedom of conscience, protections against starvation, and care for refugees? Not a utilitarian calculation. Not a social contract. Not the interests of the wealthy and powerful. Not the findings of naturalistic, positivistic, empiricist social science. What justifies these moral commitments is the recognition of the natural dignity of persons, which is ontologically real, analytically irreducible, and phenomenologically apparent. In naming the real about humans in this way we continue to pull back together fact and value, the is and the ought….
In all of this, we must acknowledge that not all people or cultures or philosophies have recognized or understood the fact of human dignity or often treated ordinary people with dignity. Quite the contrary. History is replete with failures to understand, affirm, and respect human dignity. Treating humans as possessing the dignity that is rightfully theirs by virtue of the ontology of personhood may be the exception, not the rule in human history…. How can we affirm real, objective, universal human dignity in the face of such massive misrecognition and violation of it? Does this not suggest that the idea of human dignity is actually a recent cultural invention of dubious ontology and relative value? No, I think not. Nothing whatsoever in a realist theory requires that people recognize and understand something in order for it truly to exist. Bacteria and germs existed and wreaked havoc on human bodies for most of history without anyone realizing they were real—it was not until the nineteenth century that the germ theory of disease became widely known and accepted. The objectively real moral fact that slavery is a categorical evil was likewise not widely appreciated throughout most of human history, yet in the United States people's common erroneous moral understanding of slavery until the nineteenth century did not mean that slavery was not evil. It was evil—whether or not anyone realized it. Human dignity does not become real 'for us' simply because we start believing in it, any more than our heliocentric solar system became real when people started believing in it. It always was true. What needed to happen was simply for people to conform their hitherto mistaken minds to what was already true about the real. This was the case with Copernican astronomy. This is the case with human dignity. … [T]here are certain 'institutional facts' that are real social things and made so precisely by people believing in them, through 'social construction'—things like money, representative government, and sports. But human dignity is not an institutional fact. Dignity is, in Searle's terms, a 'brute fact' of ontological reality that is a characteristic and ineliminable property of emergent personhood. Dignity is rooted in the nature of things personal [i.e., human beings], not in ideas or discourse. So the fact that not all people or cultures or philosophies have recognized or understood or respected human dignity does not touch the question of its existence.
This nevertheless compels us to recognize the historically conditioned nature of humanity's awareness of its own dignity. The recognition of human dignity has not been a historical constant. Various people, cultures, and philosophies have at different times throughout history explicitly articulated the reality of personal dignity. But the clear understanding of the inalienable, universal nature of human personal dignity that emerged in the twentieth century—especially in the wake of Nazi Germany and World War II—and that is now expressed in many national constitutions, the Charter of the United Nations, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was the outcome of long historical developments shaped by a variety of different religious, ethical, philosophical, and cultural traditions unfolding over time. Like most of human knowledge about people and the world, knowledge of human dignity has also been historically dynamic and progressive. People today can say more about dignity that really is true than they used to be able to say—just like we can say more now about physics, medicine, ocean life, the brain, the moral status of child labor, and the origins of the cosmos than we could centuries ago.

November 13, 2014

Questioning Islam isn't Islamophobia

By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, November 13, 2014

Questioning Islam isn't Islamophobia

Let's be clear on this: Muslims are people we should love and respect.

Though I disagree deeply with Islam, it seems to me that love of neighbour requires respect for those with whom one disagrees. So kudos to the folks in Cold Lake, Alberta, who helped clean up a recently vandalized mosque.

But let's be clear on this, too: having reasonable, evidence-based concerns about Islam—especially when adherents closely follow the violent life and teachings of Muhammad—is not an instance of Islamophobia.

Please notice I definitely am NOT saying that all Muslims are monolithic in their views, that all Muslims are supporters of ISIS or other terrorists, or that any Muslims should be treated with prejudice or in any way unjustly.

Rather, I am saying that we need to do some careful thinking.

I saw a meme circulating on the internet recently. The meme had two pictures with a caption under each. The first picture was of a meeting of several white-robed-white-hooded Ku Klux Klan members. The caption: "No-one thinks that these people are representative of Christians."

The second picture (immediately below the first) was of a dozen black-garbed-black-masked ISIS fighters with weapons at the ready. The caption: "So why do so many people think that these people are representative of Muslims?"

The apparent implication: just as the KKK isn't Christian, so too ISIS isn't Islamic.

Let's pause and think.

Most or all the Christians and Muslims I know are decent people, and, yes, we should protect them from being misrepresented. So far so good.

But the questions we should be asking are these: Does the KKK actually follow the example and teachings of Jesus? (Answer: clearly no.) Does ISIS actually follow the example and teachings of Muhammad? (Answer: very apparently yes.)

The more I learn about the life and teachings of Muhammad, the more I'm convinced that Muhammad was an extremely violent man bent on world domination by force—and he teaches others to be and do likewise. It's interesting that the present leader of ISIS has a PhD in Islamic Studies.

Unlike Jesus, who shed his own blood for others to spread his message, Muhammad shed the blood of others to impose his message.

A phobia is typically an irrational or ungrounded fear or hatred. Consider arachnophobia, an irrational ungrounded fear or hatred of spiders. Clearly, it's possible to have reasonable, non-phobic concerns about some spiders if the spiders display evidence of being harmful or lethal to humans.

In recent years I've seen too many public discussions shut down because people who raise important questions are dismissed as "phobic" when in fact they're not. The if-you-disagree-then-you're-phobic card is a smokescreen against truth, and it misleads popular audiences. (So I want to help nip it in the bud.)

In view of ISIS and its close affiliation with Muhammad's violent life and teachings, the challenge before us is threefold: (1) we should encourage Muslims who do not emulate Muhammad's violence to continue not emulating Muhammad's violence; (2) we should question Islam (Muslims’ religion) because it elevates Muhammad as someone to be emulated; and (3) we should do 1 and 2 in such ways that show love and respect to Muslims.

Yes, this is no small challenge. It also isn't Islamophobia.

Speaking truth and loving others can—and should—go hand in hand.

Recommended resources:

● William Kilpatrick, Christianity, Islam, and Atheism (book)
● Nabeel Qureshi, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus (book)
● Robert Spencer et al., Islam: What the West Needs to Know (online video)
● R.C. Sproul & Abdul Saleeb, The Dark Side of Islam (book)
● David Wood, Answering Muslims (website)

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is associate professor of philosophy at Providence University College.)