Friday, August 22, 2014

Morals without worlds

If there hadn't been a world, if there had been just nothing, would there still have been a basis for morality? Some philosophers seem to think there would. For example: there would still have been reasons to do the right thing regardless (i.e. regardless of whether anyone existed to do it). But, this is hard to make much sense of: reasons drifting around outside of space and time, unattached to anything?
   Dissolve the universe leaving no physical remainder, then, or so the idea appears to be, this would have no effect on the existence of, say, moral principles. Here, we might agree up to a point. We might accept that such principles cannot be destroyed in the way the thought experiment envisages. But instructive puzzles remain.
   Suppose there is a world in which the existence of certain moral principles is recognized and that world ceases to exist. Here, we might want to say that the principles in question have some kind of latent operational status. In such circumstances it still remains true, for instance, that it would be wrong to do X. This has to mean something like: if beings capable of moral judgement and behavior were to exist, then it would be wrong for them to do X.
   If we go along with this, we end up with a world filled with all possible moral principles. For from each instance of 'if there were to be creatures who lived in such and such ways', we can derive the existence of moral principles relevant to their behavior. This encourages us to think of moral principles sitting there waiting to be discovered. We might also wonder whether we can ever to sure about our own moral status. Might we not fare very badly in that respect when scrutinized in the light of moral principles that we have not yet discovered?
   But, if you think about it, the chances are that we are already faring badly. For moral principles that we are unaware of already exist. Ignorance will not get us off the hook.
   Recall, however, that we were originally thinking of the case where there is simply no world in the first instance. Doesn't even latent operational status becomes nebulous in this case? Can we say "no" without having to lean on platonic myths as support for so saying? Are we happy to allow that moral principles can neither be created or destroyed, but are just there?
   A pragmatist can agree that all sorts of new moral principles might be 'discovered' in the future, and even that we might look bad in the light of them. But, these will be created at the time, out of the social circumstances that happen to exist then. To think of them already being there in splendid isolation, waiting to be found, is the kind of mistake that the philosophical imagination has been prone to for far too long.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Worlds without Explanations

Student: “Why is there so much suffering?”
Shunryu Suzuki: “No reason”.

That there has to be a reason for everything is an appealing thought. It is hard for us to accept the notion of something just happening, or just being there, for no reason. And, when we are thinking along these lines, “reason” is usually short for “reasoned explanation”. Can we imagine a world in which this kind of thinking has no application? This is not easy. Imagine a world in which there are no intelligent beings: our world, if things had gone differently. Isn’t this a reasonless world? In one sense, perhaps, yes. But, we will still want to ask of that world why it is like it is – why it is reasonless, for instance. All worlds seems to invite such questions, as does their absense.
          Will the quest for reasons run out of steam at some point? Not because we are intellectually exhausted (although we can imagine that happening), but rather because it comes up against a natural boundary beyond which such a quest makes no sense?  Some think that this world, our world, constitutes just such a boundary. We can ask of things in it “Why this?” or “Why that?” - “Why is the sun so hot at its core?”, “Why do earthquakes occur in some places and not others?” And so on. But, when we start to ask certain questions of that world considered as whole, then, or so some people believe, these questions implode. We don’t know how to press them further because no answer seems possible even as we begin to raise and reflect on them. “Why does this world exist?” and “How is it possible for this, or any, world to exist?” are examples of these questions.
          Of course there are standard answers to such questions which are liable to satisfy many people. “Because God made it” is one. And, “As a consequence of the big bang” is another. But, anyone inclined to take the thrust of the initial questions seriously will not be so easily satisfied. 
        They will want to ask these questions of the very phenomena invoked in the answers: "Why does God exist?", “How is the existence of God possible?”, "Why did the big bang occur?", and “How was the existence of the big bang possible?”
More on this some other time.