This post is a bit long (fourteen hundred words) because I’m asking a question that strikes even me as odd—and if I seem to be defending the popular answer, that is only to emphasise that there is a genuine question here—i.e. who are the experts on ethics? For an example of why that may not seem to be much of a question, consider Anthony Grayling’s commonplaces about Faith (as opposed to science) in his The Meaning of Things (page 122):
......“Contemporary science hypothesises an evolutionary tale of
......physical forces. I say ‘hypothesises’, note; hypothesises on
......the basis of good evidence, severely tested, with many
......aspects of the accompanying theory successfully applied to
......daily life – as exemplified by the light you read by, the
......computer you work on, the airplane you fly in. The great
......advantage of science’s careful and thorough hypotheses,
......always ready to yield if better evidence comes along, is that it
......makes use of no materials or speculations beyond what the
......world itself offers. Religions, in sharp contrast, offer us eternal
......certitudes on the basis only of ancient superstition.”
But to begin with, surely our sciences do not only utilise “what the world itself offers” us—e.g. for most people (including most scientists) the standard model of those physical forces is taken on trust from particle physicists—not, that is, unless such things as the reputations of such people are included within “the world,” as perhaps they ought to be since we are, each of us, part of, rather than apart from, the world—although incidentally, if they are included then religious beliefs, about the non-physical aspects of the world, might not be so very different in kind from our scientific beliefs, about its physical aspects (cf. Polkinghorne’s defence of the Trinity as the best explanation of our written records; with which, incidentally, I disagree). Anyway, particle physicists base their theories upon data taken (almost exclusively) from places that hardly anyone else could gain admittance to—or could understand the workings of (in order to check what was going on) if they did. I’m not suggesting that such people are not to be trusted, just observing that trusting their authoritative testimony is what we do.
......In fact, although the daily life and work of most scientists (and many others) may well provide plenty of support for our beliefs about chemistry and electromagnetism (and thence in quantum mechanics), this “evolutionary tale of physical forces” is hardly so straightforward. For starters, alternative hypotheses are not always eliminated on the basis of the evidence, but surprisingly often because they are just uninteresting, for various reasons—for a glimpse of the sheer range of unconsidered possibilities, consider the following. Particle (or high-energy) physics research has surely (for the last half-century, at least) been of great interest to the military wings of the great world powers, who of course believe that it is of the utmost importance that certain classes of potential discoveries run little risk of falling into the hands of potential enemies—so my question is, what evidence does the world itself offer that the standard model of particle physics is not a fabrication designed purely for public (and thence potential enemy) consumption?
......Now, that particular hypothesis is not to be taken seriously, of course (it is not in capital letters, on a more popular blog), but clearly there are many possibilities, of various kinds, some quite reasonable (e.g. some non-string-theoretic approaches to particle physics may have been neglected for socio-economic reasons), and my point is not that particle physicists are not (or should not be) the experts about physical forces—far from it—but rather that few sorts of knowledge do not require a considerable degree of faith. There may be some, e.g. elementary mathematics, and our everyday knowledge of the world, and of our own minds, but those are hardly examples of scientific knowledge. Now, I personally favour a hitherto unconsidered (and hence unfalsified) hypothesis about physical continua (see my web pages) over the standard set-theoretic hypothesis—and for such reasons I’m undecided about physics beyond elementary quantum mechanics—but even I recognise that it is important what the experts on mathematics and physics favour (for what are presumably good, if not overwhelming reasons). But then similarly, I’m thinking, surely it is important what the experts on ethics think—whether we like what they say, or not—about what the moral facts are (e.g. that would be important in law and politics). So the question is, who are those experts?
......Since the popular answer would be something like, our religious leaders, consider the last line of Grayling above. As a one-liner about Galileo’s troubles it is not too bad, but surely religions are actually what dragged humanity away from the primitive (not to say primate) morality that is just what a purely evolutionary tale would leave us with, but to which few of us (and certainly not most physicists) would wish to return. Over the intervening centuries, the ethical views of those religions have been widely applied, and hence severely tested, both by daily life (as social structures have risen and fallen) and by internal disputes (as obscure as those within modern physics)—in short, why should the experts about ethics not be found (for the most part) within the major religions, just as the experts about physics are (for the most part) in the better-funded departments? I hasten to add that I’m not a member of any religion—in fact, I disagree with many standard religious opinions, e.g. about abortion (where, as a substantial dualist, I don’t see why our rights should not begin with our first breath), and so a good argument that I’m wrong about this answer would not be inconvenient—but (unfortunately) such disagreements are not the issue.
......Similarly, Stephen Hawking is clearly an expert on physical matters irrespective of whatever I think about strings (unfortunately). My worry is that many Naturalists are simply supposing that, just because they believe (on the basis of relatively little evidence at present) that moral facts would, if they exist at all, be best explained by an evolutionary tale, therefore religious thinkers are not experts on ethics. Naturally we think that we know what is right, independently of those religious systems that we are not part of, and of course we do not need those systems in order to function socially (at least not in the short term)—but then, we also know about the physical world independently of the hypotheses of the physicists; and most of us are physically competent, athletes and craftsmen more so than most physicists, who are nonetheless the experts on physics (for good reasons). And since I mean ethics and not meta-ethics (much as I meant above, physics and not metaphysics), so the experts are unlikely to include many philosophers—what philosophy has shown (e.g. via the paradoxes of the trolley and of distance) is that the activity of our consciences no more eliminates our need for experts on ethics than our physical intuitions eliminate our need for physicists.
......But I’m no expert, and maybe I’ve made the question clear enough, so I’ll return to reading Grayling, who is even better than Russell... But on page 100: “The religious attitude is marked by a robust refusal to take things at face value if inconvenient.” That proposition would be even truer were ‘religious’ replaced by ‘naturalistic’ (think of your own feelings and choices, and the physicists’ 10-dimensional strings, etc.)... And on page 101: “Why can we not be prompted to the ethical life by our own charitable feelings? The existence of a god adds nothing to our moral situation,” which inspires me to suggest sarcastically that surely we know about the physical world by bumping around inside it, that surely the existence of strings adds nothing to our physical situation! That is, I could say much the same for mathematics and the existence of sets, or physics and the existence of strings—but even I recognise that if strings exist then they would explain not only how we bump into things—how we actually bump into them, irrespective of what we think we are doing—but also the finer (and more paradoxical) details of the world around us. (And of course, even if they don’t exist, they may—or may not—be a good way of modelling reality.)... Etc.
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