Archive for the ‘objective moral order’ Category

Evidence of ethical and inethical behavior among bacteria

January 15th, 2010 No comments

See Michael Gilberson, co-blogger with Lynne Kiesling at  Knowledge Problem, discussing recent research:  “Cooperation and cheating among bacteria“.

I think we are beginning to see that ethical issues, that is, “problems” of cooperation between individuals, permeates life, and that evolution and experience provide differing capabilities for cooperative behavior across the spectrum of life.

Humans, being the most “advanced” and self-reflective of life forms, are privileged to include fights over “property rights”  and “objective” universal moral codes, etc. among our daily battles over how to advance our personal interests.

[The post title is tongue-in-cheek, obviously, but the study of the why and wherefor of cooperation is a serious matter, indeed. Perhaps it is the underlying theme of this blog.]

Plant behavior: More evidence of an "objective moral code" infusing the universe?

December 22nd, 2009 No comments

Gene Callahan has posted a link to an interesting article describing how plants respond to signals from other plants in their enviroment and alternatively cooperate or compete with neighboring plants, depending on degree of kinship.

More from Gene Callahan: do perceptions of "moral truths" make them objectively real, apart from those who perceive them (instead of evolved hard-wiring to cooperate)?

September 30th, 2009 3 comments

It has come to my attention that Gene Callahan has responded to my remarks regarding “objective moral truths” that I noted here.

Rather than continuing the long threadjack of an unrelated post by Bob Murphy (on climate change science), I copy and respond below to Gene`s remarks:

1.  Gene:

“to say morality is objective doesn’t necessarily mean that ‘the same rules’ apply to everybody”

Right, Tom, of course it doesn’t. To say there are objective standards of science doesn’t mean that we judge all scientific discoveries without regard to the circumstances of time and place. If someone submitted to a journal today the fact that Jupiter has moons, he wold be laughed at. That doesn’t mean that objectively we cannot judge that Galileo made a great discovery.

“On the other hand, I have agreed that man has an exquisite moral sense, and have argued that our moral sense and capacity are something that we acquired via the process of evolution”

And, this is relevant how? We have clearly evolved our ability to see trees. Is that good evidence that trees aren’t objectively real? Isn’t it better evidence that they are objectively real? Similarly, if these evolved norms aid intra-group cooperation, isn’t that good evidence that there is something to them?

2.  Me:

a.  To whom do the rules apply?

The italicized quote is a statement made earlier in the same thread by Bob Murphy; my purpose in referring to it is to note that Bob and Gene have, as I have noted in a prior post, “clarified” that the “objective moral rules” that are embedded in the universe have a differing application, depending on the capacities of the creatures that perceive (or fail to perceive) them. This position would appear to collapse any meaningful distinction between “objective” and “subjective” moral rules.

As I commented to Bob on the post linked immediately above:

I`m afraid I have to disagree with you about Gene`s post, which in fact illustrates the weakness of his position regarding “objective truth”. While he suggests that by “objectively correct” we mean something that is correct for `any and all possible perceivers’ (so far, so good), he then presents the example of ants, for whom he asserts it would be wrong for them to commit murder IF THEY WERE CAPABLE of committing murder. But he`s failed to notice that he`s not only begged the question about what we mean by saying that “it is objectively true that murder is wrong”, but he`s suggested that because ants lack a capacity to perceive moral strictures against murder, they are unable to commit it. By doing so, he`s just invited in all of the questions that I`ve outlined above [in item 1 here], plus questions of culture and exigency that you have pointed out by your reference to Eskimos. Can any animals or life forms other than man commit murder? Do moral restrictions against murder require some threshold level of self-reflection, intellectual capacity, typical social structure, physical and social maturity, or upbringing?

So there IS an objective moral order, but it only applies to those able to perceive it?  This is both a very modest position, as well as one that oddly smacks of belief in Leprechauns.

Rather than arguing that still undefined but “objective” moral rules are embedded in the structure of the universe but have only limited application, isn`t it easier to acknowledge that man has a moral sense, observe that it enhances our ability to cooperate, observe that other animals also exhibit patterns of reciprocal behavior and posit that our moral sense is something that we have evolved, as it enhanced our ability to survive and procreate?

b.  Does our perception of moral codes mean they have an “objective”, much less “universal”, existence?

Gene suggests that because we can perceive trees, they have an objective existence; likewise, since we perceive there are moral rules, that such moral rules have an objective existence apart from man. But the parallel doesn`t work.  Ants and other animals clearly behave in accordance with inherited rules that are internal, and not external to them; likewise, our awareness of a moral dimension to our behavior does not imply that the moral parameters that affect our behavior have any objective existence, other than as genetically encoded rules – that find differing expression depending upon individuals, culture and circumstances.

Clearly we perceive that our behavior is imbued with a moral aspect, and we can objectively document the moral rules within various societies, but this does not tell us that there are objective moral codes that apply to all humans and to all human interactions – including to interactions to individuals in out-groups.  Nor does it tell us whether the moral rules that humans follow are “universal” in the sense that they would apply to non-humans.

Other social animals appear to follow similar and clearly genetically-based rules in their mutual cooperative and hostile interactions. If they were aware of their own idiosyncratic rules (the rules unique to their species), no doubt they would view them as being “moral” (or even mandatory) strictures.

It seems to me to be more accurate and productive to view our search for understanding of our moral behavior as a study of the sociobiology of man, similar to the ongoing sociobiological study of ants, other animals and life, and even of neurons, rather than as a venture to discovery “objective” moral standards somehow existing OUTSIDE of or independent of man, that govern our actual or desirable behavior.

In conducting such a study, we may of course find ways in which the moral parameters that appear to apply to man are similar to those of other life forms, as these studies I referred to in another post (on consensus) seem to indicate:


Consensus on my brain: Murphy on "Orwellian" consensus, Callahan's consensus on "objective" moral truths, & consensus among neurons

September 30th, 2009 No comments

A recent post by the prolifically productive Bob Murphy, “A Quick Note from Baltimore“, provides an opportunity for further thoughts on my continuing effort to puzzle out what Bob and Gene Callahan mean by their insistence that there is an objective moral order to the universe, and on what science seems to tell us about how both brains and groups of individuals function.

In his latest post, Bob decries a statement by Brad DeLong that another economist (Edward Prescott) simply does not live in the consensus reality with the rest of us.”

Says Bob:

Is anybody else weirded-out by the term “consensus reality”? Have you ever heard of a more Orwellian phrase? Not reality mind you, but consensus reality. Prescott’s sin is not being wrong per se, but rather that he disagrees “with the rest of us.” …

Now this “consensus” criterion has spread from climate change to economics?

am not being flip. DeLong’s use of the term “consensus reality”
disturbs me far more than his endorsement of a Keynesian model. At
least if he agrees that things are objectively right or wrong–and uses
language accordingly–we can at least debate the merits of a Keynesian model.

we have no hope of changing anyone’s mind, if we fall into the dreaded
minority viewpoint, in a world dominated by “consensus reality.”

My comments are copied below, with minor editorial changes:

1.  Bob, I think Bertrand has put his finger on the “problem” that seems to
bother you so much: religions – indeed, moral codes of all kinds – work
in precisely the same way.

Don`t you understand the role of
shared moral codes – which evolve to suit changed circumstances (i.e.,
it`s “wrong” to litter, to keep slaves or to make racist, bigoted or
ant-gay remarks) in our societies?

Are all shared consensuses “Orwellian” (which I thought involved a heavy-handed state role), or only non-Christian ones?

Or are you simply complaining that you don`t like DeLong`s effort to enlist public support, since you disagree with him?

this note, do you remember Gene Callahan`s post on how a libertarian
society might employ moral suasion as a key lever in addressing
concerns about man`s roles in climate change? [discussed here and here]; does moral suasion require “objective” truths, or merely shared/consensus values?


2.  “isn’t the “consensus reality” trick how Gene_Callahan usually tries to win philosophical debates?” [a comment by Silas Barta, with reference to comments by Gene Callahan on the thread I remark on here]

Silas, while I think your observation is fair, it seems to me the more
telling point is that Gene`s own behavior belies his arguments that
there are objective, universal moral truths.

Instead, we each
perceive our own reality, influenced by incoming information, including
the beliefs of others and apparent gaps between our mental map of
reality and incoming information.

Our reliance on an apparent
“consensus” should not be ignored. As a society of individuals, we are
significantly affected by what others believe, and we often find we are
weaker than we hope when faced with consensus views that we disagree

Further, each of us lacks the ability to independently
confirm the validity of the beliefs about reality that we accept into
our mental maps.

As a result, the “appeal to” authority, popularity, etc. fallacies are not simply rife, but unavoidable.

scientists are finding that “consensus decision-making” processes are
at work not only in groups of individuals, but even at more fundamental
levels of personal perception, at the level of groups of neurons:

Murphy and Callahan on my brain; Murphy says: "The Brain and Mind Are Not the Same Thing!"

September 20th, 2009 No comments

[Note: I find that Bob Murphy deleted the comment thread.]

Allow me to draw the curious reader`s attention to the latest post by Bob Murphy on the subject of mind, the brain and what is “real”.  Again, the ensuing conversation suffers from confusion since Murphy refuses to clarify what he means when he uses the term “mind” and “real”.Sure, we usually mean different things when we use different terms, but in my view a Venn diagram of these two would have “mind” entirely within the boundaries of “brain” (there are no disembodied minds).

Also, Gene Callahan makes an appearance and does battle with Silas Barta in an interesting exchange that reveals to me, at least, how little I know. Not surprisingly, though, Callahan again storms FROM the Bastille, earning the following playful admonishment by Bob:

“Whoa there tiger. I realize your brain chemistry made you type those insults out, but by the same token my neurons are making me chastise your tone here. Remember, it is the Rothbardian wing of Austrian economics that resorts to name-calling as opposing to scholarly debate. You NYU guys are supposed to be above that.”

Which leaves an interesting question: when we emote, are our minds actually thinking? Or, as Bob seems to concede (by adopting my “the brain produces the mind” rhethoric), are we really just reacting, and verbalizing the flow?

Callahan finally speaks: but are external, "objective moral truths" needed for a community to enforce shared rules?

September 10th, 2009 4 comments

[Well, the Mises server just swallowed my first attempt at this post, so the reader will just have to suffer this sketchier one.]

I have been chasing both Gene Callahan and Bob Murphy to try to get them to spell out what they mean when they assert that there is an “objective moral order” in the universe; until recently Bob has been by far the most congenial, as well as evidencing more interest in discussing the subject, but he has just thrown in the towel for the time being, after conceding that “to say morality is objective doesn’t necessarily mean that ‘the same rules’ apply to everybody” and that he has no good answers my questions as to whether the objective moral order applies to all creatures and to all men regardless of age, gender and mental development.

On the other hand, I have agreed that man has an exquisite moral sense, and have argued that our moral sense and capacity are something that we acquired via the process of evolution, as an aid to intra-group cooperation and conflict with out-groups. Similar arguments have been made

– by Bruce Yandle,

– by Roy Rappaport (former head of the American Anthropology Assn.) in his book “Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity” (which I have discussed here) and

– by David Sloan Wilson in his book “Darwin`s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society“.

However, Bob did point to a related post by Gene Callahan in which Gene essentially argued that the “objective” moral truths rules that are embedded in the structure of the universe apply only to those creatures able to perceive the rules. In other words, not to ants – and perhaps not to other life forms or to humans whose age and mental development leave them incapable of perceiving the rules. 

I have received no response from Gene on my posts here (perhaps he hasn`t yet perceived them), but he did start to provide a little meat in a rather long threadjack at a totally unrelated blog post by Bob (TokyoTom Moving the Goalposts? – regarding my comments on the rush to sell poorly-understood science in the political marketplace). 

Since it`s a topic of interest but I don`t wish to continue the threadjack (and it`s difficult to follow there, given unrelated comments, and contains largely irrelevant ad homs/replies), I take the liberty of excerpting relevant portions here, and I respond further below.

1.  From Bob`s thread (unedited, with emphasis added):


As you assert, right and wrong are all just subjective opinion, so, if I can profit from these impacts, why should I care? By your own principles, the fate f those poor schucks in Sri Lanka should mean nothing to me.


Again you misunderstand my principles. But the glory of the world, of course, is that you get to base your behavior on your own principles (and objective truths as you perceive them), not mine, as well as on any moral pressure you might feel from the broader community in which you dwell.


I am not saying you actually think it is merely a subjective matter whether or not millions die in a man-made tsunami, etc. In fact, you correctly think that such a thing is objectively wrong. For the third time, I will say that what I am saying in posts like this is not what I think your views are, but what by logic you ought to think, given your rejection of objective moral truths. I am pointing out that you’re position is inconsistent, and therefore incoherent: You claim not to believe in objective moral truth, and yet you make arguments that depend on the existence of what you deny.


– I have not so much “claim[ed] not to believe in objective moral truth” as to note that G.C. has singularly failed to explain what he means by his statement or to offer any support to for. Proof of this is not only in GC`s threads, but in the fact that Bob felt the need to re-open the subject himself.

– If I “make arguments that depend on the existence of what I deny”, then G.C. has failed to show it.

First, I have made it clear that not only to I believe that the material universe (of matter and energy) objectively exists, but that I believe that it has an underlying structure that we can strive to understand (and express mathematically) even as our understanding (and descriptions) of it will always be incomplete. Thus, an algorithm may or may not be an accurate description of the structure of the universe. In any case, the objective existence of a poorly-understood structure to the universe offers no support for the proposition that there is a moral order to the universe.

Further, G.C. has argued that there is an object moral structure to the universe; I have argued that man has an exquisite inherited moral sense, and that we inherited this moral sense via evolution over eons because it provided benefits by allowing enhanced intra-group cooperation and reducing tragedies of the commons.

Accepting that man has a moral nature which is genetically based (but that is expressed differently in each individual and culture, and that is largely applied to in-group transactions but applied much more lightly in interactions with those outside our groups) does NOT depend on arguments that there is any universal moral order, applicable outside of man to all of Creation (or to such of Creation as may be conscious).

Sorry, but my arguments simply do NOT “depend on the existence of what I deny” – including arguments over whether or not G.C. has “behaved badly”, or arguments that man ought not to engage in actions that directly or indirectly harm others. Such things may be measured and tested based strictly on a study of human nature (which is objectively different from other animals and has an objective genetic base).


“I have argued that man has an exquisite inherited moral sense, and that we inherited this moral sense via evolution over eons because it provided benefits by allowing enhanced intra-group cooperation and reducing tragedies of the commons.”

And so what? Either “enhanced intra-group cooperation” and “reducing tragedies of the commons” are objectively good things (and you’ve given up moral subjectivism), or you’ve gotten precisely nowhere.

Let’s say in the remote Amazon some group has evolved so that THEIR “exquisite moral sense” requires the smashing in of the infant’s skulls of whatever other tribe they meet. Then, through some fluke, they wind up in Tokyo and go on a skull-smashing rampage. Hey, well, that’s just the way their moral sense evolved, hey? You, by your own premises, are in absolutely no position to tell them what they are doing is wrong. In fact, since obviously my behaviour is a result of my evolutionary past, then if I am being “rude” to you, well, that’s just MY “exquisite moral sense,” isn’t it? Who are you to go saying my moral sense is wrong and yours is right, when clearly both are the product of the same evolutionary process!

So, although I realize that you do not understand that you pre-suppose that which you deny, you do. (In fact, we should suspect that anyone making such an error will pretty much always fail to recognize that they are making it, since no one can consciously embrace incoherence.)


2.  My further comments:

Ironically, it is Gene who is pre-supposing what my presuppositions and my objectives are. 

First, I can argue (though I haven`t made such a case) that it would be wrong if millions die in a man-made tsunami, without “think[ing] that such a thing is objectively wrong,” based on a moral code external to man. Rather, I can simply rely on my own values and those of the communities of which I am a member.

Likewise, I need not (and do not) make any arguments that either “enhanced intra-group cooperation” and “reducing tragedies of the commons” are “objectively good things”; I need merely to observe scientifically that man, like his cousin critters, has evolved, that he has a moral sense akin to, but more more highly developed than, patterns of reciprocal behavior in other animals (while more genetically identical communities of social insects cooperate even more closely), and to suppose that this moral sense of right and wrong and the related predilection towards the social development of norms and rules were evolutionarily ADVANTAGEOUS, by enhancing group cohesion while moderating internal frictions and behaviors that were costly to the group as a whole, better enabling the group to take advantage of resources in the environment and respond to challenges, including challenges by out-groups.

Gene suggests one must have “objective truths” to get somewhere, but that just tells us the HE has an agenda for man; rather than particularly trying to get SOMEWHERE I`m just applyng an evolutionary approach to figure out how we got HERE.

It`s a shame I lost my previous post on this, but I think it pretty clear that our “exquisite moral sense” is both highly developed and very two-faced (highly selective would be a more gentle expression): we act one way to members of our group (based on highly developed codes and bonding rituals that became religions as our groups grew larger), but generally act as if we have little or no obligations to outsiders, to whom we might very well be downright suspicious and hostile. Why would that be? Maybe because, like the chimpanzee bands that so famously disillusioned Jane Goodall, we`ve been engaged in murderous competition with rival bands from time immemorial.

While it`s possible to argue that man`s deliberate struggle through history has been one of extending the limits of those whom we need to be decent to from a small circle to all of mankind (or further, to pets, other animals, etc.) – and there have certainly been individuals who have made conscious efforts to do so – one may also see the “progress” in this direction as being the simple consequence of Darwinian struggles between different human groups and societies, with the societies that more successfully united their own peoples, seized opportunities and vanquished other groups (through a combination of defeat, elimination and inclusion). Religions and our moral sense have clear served as both weapons and tools in this process; the gods have served on both sides of most conflicts, at least until one won, frequently by putting the heathen to the sword. Thus, “moral progress” has frequently been bought by brutal blood-soaked violence in which the victors routinely failed to pay much attention to the morality of their own conduct toward the other – as has always been our nature.

Forced change can be seen in both in the US. Civil War in the case of slavery and in this anecdoctal quote regarding British attempts to stamp out the Hindi practice of ritual immolation of the wives of a deceased husband in India:

You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.

Very seldom has such forced change been primarily motivated by a desire to bring about moral progress.

Persuasion and mass moral suasion can often work, as can be seen in the cases of ML King and the civil rights movement, as well as Ghandi`s efforts, particular when public opinion was mobilized. Gene has argued for this himself; while those arguing for change of course may feel united by religion and may employ appeals to the shared beliefs of others, no external “objective” moral order is needed for moral suasion to work.

Gene conjures up an Amazonian skull-smashing tribe at loose in Tokyo, but why look so far? The Japanese and the rest of the “modern” slaughters millions of unborn infants annually (and particularly females in China, India and the Middle East). The difference, of course, is that we are just doing it to ourselves, rather than having it inflicted on us by outsiders.

Gene is right to note that my rather cold-eyed observations about our remarkably self-serving moral sense might leave me in “absolutely no position to tell [Amazonian skull-smashers rampaging in Tokyo] what they are doing is wrong,” but so what? Gene is simply asking the wrong question. The Japanese do not need “objective” external moral standards to deal with such behavior; they need simply to STOP it. And make no doubt about; stop it they would FIRST, and then ask questions, and perhaps later, if time and a surviving Amazonian or two permits, they might attempt a discussion on moral issues. This of course is true of every community when faced with an attack; banding together in self-defense is virtually instinctive.

Gene might posit other, stickier situations, of which we face a bottomless pit. We have our tribal need for close groups, but have on large parts of the planet blessedly stilled the fraternal slaughter between rival societies. In larger societies, we face stresses between our attenuated bonds to others and our wish for close communities. On one front the religious bonds that united particular societies have frayed, but our urge for uniting bonds of ritual and belief remain, while on another we`ve managed to stir up more religious fundamentalism and distrust at home and abroad.

In all this, the desire for an objective set of universally binding moral rules that is floating around in the universe just waiting for everyone to become enlightened and to voluntarily submit to them is quite understandable, but obviously pie in the sky. I suggest that we try to work instead in understanding our own nature better and work at trying to persuade each other and to lessen tensions that may become murderous.


P.S. Gene`s error can be seen further in his comments about rude behavior. He thinks that taking a cultural, evolutionary view leaves one without a basis for criticism, so therefore I must unintentionally be relying on objective, external standards to criticize him. He`s got it precisely wrong – while clearly we ARE both “the product of the same evolutionary process”, my appeal is not to objective external standards, but to shared COMMUNITY standards (that can be objectively described). Further, by publicly arguing my position, I hope to marshal public support of the kind that he has himself usefully pointed out.

The questions are simply whether Gene and I actually share ANY communal bonds and obligations, what those obligations are, how they apply in this instance, and whether Gene cares what anyone else thinks.

What is ironic is to see someone like Gene who so clearly wants to see a better world take the position that “objective” moral standards permit such lack of concern for how he treats others and how such treatment is perceived. But an evolutionary thinker would simply see it as more evidence for the remarkable moral flexibility that the Creator has endowed us with.


[Update] Gene Callahan, objectively unreal: If a blog comment is deleted, did it ever exist? And is the indignation I feel based on a moral code that has an "objective" existence?

July 16th, 2009 No comments

Your foolish reporter, having rushed in where even angels like Bob Murphy fear to tread, now reports the latest “unreal”, or at least the rather unbelievable, turn of events (and non-events), at Gene Callahan`s Crash Landing blog.

Readers may recall my earlier report regarding  Mr. Callahan`s blog post on the intriguing topic of whether “morals are objectively real”, which blog post oddly “disappeared” and was subsequenty resurrected (after my report here).

The latest news is that our philosopher king has, rather startlingly, slammed shut and bolted the windows and doorson the subject blog post, after uttering a stream of grumpy and dismissive comments,  “The Doctor Is In” sign has been yanked, and replaced with the sign

“New comments have been disabled for this post by a blog administrator.”

Comments are now closed on THIS thread – even though they remain open on ALL OTHER posts by Gene, from as far back as June 8.

That the proprietor added a parting shot (misdirected at a strawman, of course) after yours truly responded to prior comments is not particularly surprising, but what is very stunning is that my response itself has been DELETED, so that it appears as if, after being castigated by my superior,  I sinply tucked in my tail and slinked off.

[Update:  I note that I was alerted to the fact that comments had been turned off when Bob Murphy kindly sent me and email (cc`d to Gene) that indicated Bob`s willingness to take up  this subject on his own blog; when I asked why he hadn`t made this offer on the blog thread, he replied that he coul dn`t as comments had been closed.]

It was only after Mr. Callahan declined to respond to my email request for an explanation that I decided to remark here on this rather sad  state of affairs.]

This type of behavior may lead some to question Mr. Callahan`s maturity and sense of honor.  Is this how one treats “friends” or other invited guests, especially someone purportedly interested in a conversation about “truth”, simply because one does not like what others have to say?

Others may simply ponder whether Gene, fuelled not by dispepsia by by a fit of youthful good fun on a post regarding the “objective” nature of morals, has simply playfully tried to raise the questions of (a) whether blog comments, if removed by the blog proprietor, indeed ever existed, (b) if not, whether judgments as to his`s behavior can have any objective basis whatsoever and, of course (c) whether morals themselves have any objective reality.

But while others may disagree on how to evaluate such behavior (I have my own conclusions, but insist there is no objective moral order that makes me right and Gene and others wrong), I am confident, at least, that my now non-existent comment was objectively real.  For the benefit of others, I post below my complete comment (typos and all), in precisely the form I received it in my Inbox from “”, Gene`s blogging platform (one gets these little messages by suscribing:to the comments on particular posts)..

This、I hope, demonstrates that thoughts, however evanescent, are real.

Which leaves inquiring minds to ponder just what, if anything, Mr. Callahan hope to accomplish or demonstrate by his apparently petulant and ungentlemanly behavior, and whether he is satisfied with the results.  (Discussions of whether there is an objective moral order – one not relative to man or to particular societies and individuals – will have to be left to another day and, alas, a venue other than Crash Landing, which sems to be crashing and burning.)

Here`s the comment (which was initally posted before Gene`st last word); readers can check the blog post itself for context.

from TokyoTom <[email protected]>
to [email protected]
date Wed, Jul 15, 2009 at 3:09 PM
subject [Crash Landing] New comment on Morals Are Not Objectively Real and Neither Is….
TokyoTom has left a new comment on the post “Morals Are Not Objectively Real and Neither Is…“:

“As thoughts?! And thoughts consist of mass and energy?”

There are no diembodied thoughts. “Thoughts” is a word that describes
our perception of physical activty in our brain. We might record or
communicate our thoughts, which communications also have a physical

“No, Tom, he’s speaking of mental age”

Is he your sock puppet, or are you dissing me on your own?

“most people get through their materialist stage by about 20.”

I disagree – most people never seriously think about thinking. And all cognitive scientists are older than 20.

“”discussion” doesn’t exist since it’s not made of matter and energy”

says? Not me. Discussion and dialogue – communication – definitely
exist and have a material basis. Is the “freshman philospohy BS” I`m
parroting so difficult that even you can`t follow it?

“I know, there is no “point” to anything, as it’s all just a bunch of atoms colliding”.

might know this, but I certainly don`t. I appreciate the helpful
attitude, but maybe you can let me put my own thoughts in my own mouth?

really is no sense trying to “discuss” … things with “someone” …
who can keep such rubbish in their head is really quite “pointless””

get your drift despite the grammar, but if all of this is so easy AND
pointless, why do you have such difficulty actually describing what I
say (that freshamn philosphy BS), why didn`t you dispose of it months
adgo on your peaen to Danny Shahar (who seems to agree with me, BTW),
why did you even bother with post, and why have you still, after all of
this time, failed to respond to my questions above (about whether the
objective order is something that exists apart from mankind, and is
universal to all men and all life)?

Too easy? Too boring? Too pointless?

I had thought that if I came here, I would get to kill the English. Have I come to the wrong place, then?

“I hope your electrons thrive in the future, Tom!”

thayks; that`s the nicest thing I`ve heard all day. Not to look a gift
horse in the mouth, but electrons don`t thrive – and even though they
may be get excited, they never get disappointed!

Post a comment.

Unsubscribe to comments on this post.

Posted by TokyoTom to Crash Landing at 2:09 AM


A further remaining question is whether Charlie Brown will ever again accept Lucy`s invitation to kick a proffered football.


[Updated] Are blog posts by Gene Callahan Objectively Real? Perhaps not

July 13th, 2009 No comments

[Update:  Happy news!  The subject blog post, once non-existent, has (been) resurrected!  Discussions, with a decided acerbic philosopher-king, continue!]

[Update part Deux: Unfortunately, as noted elsewhere, our ill-humored host has closed out his blog post, after deleting my response to a string of comments and adding a coda of his own.]

In a blog post in mid-May, libertarian wisdom-lover Gene Callahan articulated the thesis that there is an objective moral reality.  I copied here my discussion on the comment thread with Gene.  In the ensuing months, Gene has maintained strict radio silence, despite a few subsequent efforts by me to engage him.

At last however, it seems that on July 10, Gene posted a follow-up post, entitled “Morals Are Not Objectively Real and Neither Is …”.

“It seems”, I say, because the blog post, which I distinctly recall, no longer exists.  Google reports faint emanations from the post in various web pages, including the following cache of the apparent post:

Morals Are Not Objectively Real and Neither Is…

My friend laughed. “If morals
are objectively real, where are they?”

“Hmm,” I thought, good point. “So, the only things that are
objectively real are those located in space and time.”

“But, wait… the physical universe is not located in space and time,

“The physical universe is not objectively real!”

posted by Gene Callahan @ 3:35 PM

(emphasis added)

The contents of the non-post, and the lack of its current existence, lead me to wonder, as I wander out under the sky, the thoughts pondered in my post title.

I note that my Gmail inbox contains messages from the Twilight Zone, which indicate that I, Bob Murphy and Gene might have made the following comments on Gene`s non-post:

TokyoTom has left a new comment on the post “Morals Are Not Objectively Real and Neither Is…“:

Gene, thanks for revisiting this topic, but it doesn`t seems you`re
really exerting yourself, other than to make light of what you purport
to take seriously.

You might be the only guy chasing his tail who fooled himself into thinking he caught it.

existence is proof that the universe exists in space and time. But
where do morals objectively exist, apart from the individuals thinking
about them? Do other species have “morals” that govern their behavior,
or is there no objective moral order apart from man? Is the human
“objective” moral order universal, for all individuals, across all

Inquiring ants want to know!


Bob Murphy has left a new comment on the post “Morals Are Not Objectively Real and Neither Is…“:

TT, I don’t think most physicists (at least most cosmologists) would agree with you. The physical universe itself does not have particular space-time coordinates; relative to what?

rather than giving such a grandiose example, can’t you pick something
easier, like the Pythagorean Theorem or a pun? I grant you, no matter
what you pick, TT or other critics will find some reason to throw out
your remark as silly, but still it might be helpful.

For the
record, folks, I used to be a materialist and Gene talked me down from
the ledge. I didn’t even realize how much importance I was vesting with
the physical world until I debated him about it on anti-state.


TokyoTom has left a new comment on the post “Morals Are Not Objectively Real and Neither Is…“:

Bob, the fact that the universe itself is not a turtle sitting on the
back of another doesn`t mean that the universe and matter/phenomena
within it are not OBJECTIVE.

question, assuming Gene is not asserting the lack of objectivity of the
universe, is just what the heck Gene MEANS by “objective”, and just how
it is that there is an moral order to the universe that exists just as
objectively as, say, Saturn, the Tokugawa bakufu ot Gitmo.


Gene Callahan has left a new comment on the post “Morals Are Not Objectively Real and Neither Is…“:

“Our existence is proof that the universe exists in space and time.”

that’s ridiculous. Think about what you’re saying — the universe
cannot be “in” space! Just where in space do you think it’s located?


Gene Callahan has left a new comment on the post “Morals Are Not Objectively Real and Neither Is…“:

“Bob, the fact that the universe itself is not a turtle sitting on the
back of another doesn`t mean that the universe and matter/phenomena
within it are not OBJECTIVE.”

Exactly right, Tom — the fact that something is not located in space and time does not mean it’s not objective.

Gene`s implication appears to be that, just as the universe does not
exist in space or time, but is objective, so there exists an objective
moral order, that does not exist in space or time. 

If so, inquiring minds want to know (1) whether the objective moral
order is a part of the universe, (2) what methods can we apply to
confirm the existence of and explore the objective moral order, (3)
whether such methods are distinct from the scientific method, and (4)
just what the heck Gene means by “”objective”, anyway.

I`m not half as smart as I think I am, but I am now thoroughly
befuddled, not only as to what Gene believes is “objective”, but also
how to continue a non-existent discussion.

Man & religion: Is there is an objective moral reality? In which I hazard a few thoughts

May 26th, 2009 6 comments

I make no pretense of having any formal training in philosophy, but it strikes me that the answer is no.

I post here a few thoughts I penned in an exchange with Gene Callahan at his blog, Crash Landing on May 18 and 19, in connection with conversation that Gene was conducting with budding philosopher Danny Shahar (who also comments on climate change skepticism):


At 9:25 AM Blogger Gene Callahan said…
Well, Vichy, you have correctly identified a problem. Unfortunately, just as when someone is yelling “A cliff!” to another person who is rushing towards it while declaring “I care nothing about cliffs!” the “problem” exists for only one of us.
At 4:02 AM Blogger TokyoTom said…
“the “problem” exists for only one of us.”
Yes, Gene – for the one without a glider or parasail.
Likewise, any “objective” moral order would be true only relative to the physical and mental endowments of the species and, as each individual has objectively different cognitive and other physical endowments, and of such species` individual members.
If we limit the discussion to humans (Homo sapiens sapiens), at most, it seems to me that we can speak of is being genetically endowed (via a process influenced by natural selection over eons) with a range of moral beliefs, which find differing expressions given our gender, environment etc.
Yandle touched on some of this here:
At 4:06 AM Blogger TokyoTom said…
For clarity, we aren`t endowed with beliefs per se, but with a capacity for them.
But what we end up with is heavily influenced by our upbringing/social millieu, gender/brain chemistry etc.
At 7:50 AM Blogger Gene Callahan said…
“Likewise, any “objective” moral order would be true only relative to the physical and mental endowments of the species and, as each individual has objectively different cognitive and other physical endowments…”
Of course slime molds do not think, “Hmm, it’s wrong to steal.” But how is the relevant? Does the existence of blind people make you doubt that light is objectively real, or think, “The laws of light propagation are only true for sighted people”?
The same point shows the irrelevance of cultural millieu, upbringing, etc. to the question of objective moral truth. Of course these things influence what our moral beliefs are! Did you think I was unaware of the existence of other cultures?
But, again, what is this supposed to demonstrate? Does the fact that before 1900 no human being believed in quantum mechanics, and today few people understand it yet, mean that there is no objective truth about the topic?
At 11:54 AM Blogger TokyoTom said…
Gene, while I consider it objectively true that human individuals display a moral sense, I see it as a biological trait (based on genotypes but with a wide and heavily environment-influenced phenotype) that exhibits a range across the species.
Outlines of the moral sense can be generalized, but each individual possesses his own, which may be quite different.
Needless to say, or biologicial relations, if as conscious and self-reflective as we, would have a different moral sense.
At 12:01 PM Blogger Gene Callahan said…
Right, Tom. And that relates to the question of whether or not there is objective moral truth just how?
(We all have unique sense organs. Does that mean that there can’t be any objective truth to the statement ‘Light travels at 186,000 miles per second?)
At 10:23 PM Blogger TokyoTom said…

Gene, while my own sense organs are limited, flawed and play tricks on me, it does seem to me that there is an objective world outside of me. At least, my experiences lead me to believe so. 

Scientific method and technology allow us to discover ever more about such objective reality (even while giving us conundrums about the particle/wave duality of electromagnetic radiation, and bizarro world of quantum mechanics).

The physical world is real, not only to us, but to other life forms that have entirely different ways of sensing, experiencing and interacting with it.

“Light”, including parts of the EM spectrum that aren`t directly visible to man, and sound (vibrations that can be sensed) exist in the real world, Gene.

But where is the “objective moral order”, that exists independent of humanity (or other life forms that act in ways both familiar and unfamiliar to us), communities and individuals?

Even if there were an objective moral order apart from our own feeble abilities to perceive it, it seems to me far more useful to regard our thinking about it in the context of our human nature, as beings subject to group selection pressures.

At 5:11 PM Blogger Gene Callahan said…

Tom, other than just saying, “Well, physical things just are objectively real and moral truths just aren’t, ha-ha!” I don’t see you arguing for your position in any way at all. Sure, if you assert from the start that physical things are objectively real (or so it “seems to you”, huh, Tom — kind of subjective there!) and moral truths aren’t, then of course that is the conclusion you will reach at the end.

So what?

At 10:04 PM Blogger TokyoTom said…

Gene, thanks for coming back on this, but have you addressed my comments fairly, or just taken a long time to punt?

I think I`ve been probing rather than reaching conclusions, much less ones ending “ha-ha!”

In part, I`m trying to figure out what YOU mean by an “objective moral truth”, which appears to be something real and can be tested for despite the inability of a particular observer to perceive directly – like beings that can`t directly perceive light (or like us who can`t personally physically observe much of what technology allows us to).

Is that what you mean?

And are you asserting that, for every conscious and self-aware being – regardless of species – that there is a uniform, objective moral order in the universe? [Leaving aside the question of how this objective moral order applies to type of organisms that are not conscious, or are conscious but not self-aware.]

Or are you only talking about an objective moral order that exists only for humans, that perhaps someday can be identified and located in universally shared mental processes, based on brain activity and arising from shared genes?

Or an objective moral order that exists for some humans, but not all – depending on physical development of the brain as we mature (with the development of some being impaired via genetic or other defect)?

Sure, if you assert from the start that physical things are objectively real (or so it “seems to you”, huh, Tom — kind of subjective there!)Yeh, kinda tricky how despite the fact that, in our search for understanding we have to rely on a brain that plays all manner of tricks on us, I agree with your basic premise that some parts of the world we inhabit is objective.