Monthly Archives: April 2015

Does Morality Depend on Religion?

The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso in 2007

Why should I be moral? One answer is that if we are moral, the gods will reward us; and if not, the gods will punish us. This is called “the divine-command theory.” (DCT) According to DCT, things are right or wrong simply because the gods command or forbid them, there is no other reason. (This is like a parent’s who says to a child: it’s right because I said so!)

To answer the question of whether morality can be based on a god we would have to know things like: 1) if there are gods; 2) if the god we believe in is good; 3) if the gods issue commands; 4) how to know the gods’ commands; 5) if we found the commands—say in a book—how would we know the commands are good ones; 6) if they were good commands how would we understand or interpret them; 7) if the came from a book which translation of the book; 8) how could you know if the translation is accurate; 9) can any translation be accurate; and 10) even if the translation was accurate how would you interpret the words you read. This is just a partial list of the problems you encounter trying to base ethics on a god or religion.

Difficulties also arise if we hear voices commanding us, or we accept an institutions’ authority. Why trust the voices or authorities? And which institution? Which revelation? Obviously, there are enormous philosophical difficulties with basing ethics on religion.

But let’s say that there are gods, that you have found the right one, that the right one issued commands, that the commands are good, that you have access to the right commands (because you found the right book, church, or had the right vision), that you understand the commands, that you interpret the commands correctly even though they came from a book that has been translated from one language to another over thousands of years? (Anyone who has ever translated knows that you can’t translate word for word between languages.) But let’s just say that somehow you are right about everything. Can you then base ethics on religion?

More than 2,000 years ago Plato answered this question in the negative. In Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates asked a famous question: “Are things right because the gods command them, or do they command them because they are right?” If things are right simply because the gods command them, then their commands are arbitrary—without reason. There are no good reasons for their commands. The gods then are like petty tyrants who just command things because they have the power.

On the other hand, if the gods command things because they are right, then there are reasons for their commands. The gods command things because they see or recognize that certain commands are really good for us. But if that is the case, then there is some standard or norm or criteria by which good or bad is to be measured. And this standard is independent of the gods.

So either the god’s command are without reason, and therefore arbitrary, or they are with reason, and thus are commanded according to some standard. This standard—say that we would all be better off—is thus the reason we should be moral. And that reason, not a god’s authority—is what makes something right or wrong. And the same is true for an authoritative book. Something is not wrong simply because the book says so. There must be a reason for this and if there is not, then the book is simply wrong.

Of course one could argue that even if the gods are petty tyrants who command us without reason—except for say their own amusement—we should still follow the commands so as not to suffer—since the gods are possibly powerful and mean enough to do so. If they can inflict eternal torture—if they are the ultimate sadists—then we do have a reason to follow their commands—to avoid torture!

The response to this is that we don’t know that the gods will reward us for following their non-rational commands. Maybe the gods reward people who use their reason and don’t accept such commands and punish those who are so frightened as to accept non-rational commands. This seems to make some sense if the gods are petty, tyrannical bullies, they might like it if you stood up to them. Who knows?

The foregoing discussion should suffice to show how difficult it is to base ethics on religion. Again, even if one could overcome all the practical difficulties involved in philosophically justifying religion, it seems that either a) the god’s commands are arbitrary and there is thus no reason to follow them; or b) the god’s commands are not arbitrary and there are reasons for them. But if the latter is the case, then we are doing philosophical, not theological, ethics. We are looking for the reasons why things are moral or immoral.

Finally, you might object that the gods have reasons for their commands, and we just can’t know them. But if this is the case, if we really can’t know anything about the gods’ reasons, if the ways of the gods “are mysterious to humans,” then what’s the point of religion? If you can’t know anything why the gods command things, then why follow their commands, why have religion at all, why listen to the preacher? If it’s all a mystery, then no person or book or church has anything coherent to say about God, ethics, or anything else. and in that case, you should just be a skeptic.

If we want to rationally justify morality, then we will have to do it in a moral theory independent of hypothetical gods. We will have to engage in philosophical ethics.

Is Ethics Objective? Discussed in Two Pages

Left to right: Plato, Kant, Nietzsche, Buddha, Confucius, Averroes

Thrasymachus, a character in Plato’s Republic, denies that justice (morality) is real. He claims that ethical rules are made up by people, primarily the elite ruling class, and others who follow the rules “are just being dumb.” In short, ethics is subjective, relative or dependent upon cultures/people, instead of objective, absolute, or independent of cultures/people. What arguments might we advance for this position?

Moral Relativism Argument 1 – Different cultures/people have different moral codes. And this leads to tolerance of other cultures/people.

Reply – But should one tolerate slavery, the abuse of women, etc.? Should a woman be stoned to death for adultery as directed by the Koran and Old Testament? Respect is good, but this doesn’t mean other cultures/people can’t sometimes be wrong. In addition, the world is not “a collection of discrete, unified, cultures…” So who speaks for a given culture? The Baptists? The Socialists? The Irish? Finally, from the mere fact that different cultures/people have different moral codes it does NOT follow that relativism is true. Thus to have respect for cultures/people doesn’t mean we can’t make judgments about them.

Moral Relativism Argument 2 – All standards of judgment are relative to culture/people. In other words, there are no cultural/personal neutral standards of ethics.

Reply – There is a neutral standard by which to judge human actions: “whether the social practice in question is beneficial or harmful to the people who are affected by it.”  This principle is universal because it deals with the very survival of a cultures/people.  We can respect cultures/people and still have reasons to condemn certain practices. We condemn them because those practices hurt people!

Moral Relativism Argument 3 – Scientists generally agree, ethicists rarely agree. Ethics is not objective like science, so it must be relative.

Reply – In ethics there is much agreement than it appears; most people think torture and murder are wrong. Also the areas of agreement—murder—are much more important than areas of disagreement—abortion—because society can function well with different policies on abortion, but cannot function well without a prohibition against murder. Finally, while all competent scientist agree on the basics—quantum, evolutionary, atomic, gravitational, and heliocentric theories are true beyond any doubt—they sometimes disagree about the details of their theories. So science and ethics are not completely different.

Moral Relativism Argument 4 – Scientists know how to resolve their disputes, but in ethics, the arguments seem endless—no one can prove anything in ethics.

Reply– Ethical proofs are similar to scientific proofs, ethicists support conclusions with reasons and evidence. An ethicist makes the case that Smith is bad by offering evidence that she lies, cheats, kills, and steals. Why then does it seem there are no ethical proofs? Because: 1) we often discuss only the hardest ethical problems so truth is hard to discern; 2) there are often good reasons on both sides of moral disputes; and 3) people are stubborn; they often won’t budge despite the evidence or reasons offered them.

Moral Relativism Argument 5 – There are no “moral facts” that exist in the world like there are facts about stars, rocks, or people. Values exist only in people’s minds. But notice that scientific ideas are true or false if they match some truth or falsity in reality.

Reply– Moral reality is not like physical reality. Rather moral truths are truths because they are reasonable. Morality is like mathematics, an analytical discipline not an empirical one. Thus, ethics isn’t that different from science, and ethics can be objective like science.

(This entry relied heavily on James and Stuart Rachels’ book: Problems from Philosophy.)

RTE Radio 1 Dublin

On Sunday April 26 I was interviewed by RTE Radio 1 of Dublin, Ireland for the radio program “Life Matters.” The title of Sunday’s program was “Does death make life worth living?” The program focused on how the defeat of death by technology would affect both life’s meaning and religion.

Others interviewed included noted futurist Zoltan Istvan, and philosophers Stephen Cave, John Hardwig, Christine Overall, and myself. My contribution began about 19 minutes into the show. Istvan made the transhumanist case, Cave and Hardwig defended death, Overall defended immortality, and I argued that religion will fail to accommodate to transhumanism. When people can choose immortality, religion as we know it will end. You can hear the entire radio broadcast here.

When Superintelligent AIs Arrive, Will Religions Try to Convert It?


Progress in machine classification of images. The error rate of AI by year. Red line – the error rate of a trained human

(This article was reprinted as “Will Religions Convert AIs to Their Faith?” in Humanity+ Magazine, April 28, 2015.)

Zoltan Istvan caused a stir with his recent article: “When Superintelligent AI Arrives, Will Religions Try to Convert It?” Istvan begins by noting, “… we are nearing the age of humans creating autonomous, self-aware super intelligences … and we will inevitably try to control AI and teach it our ways …” And this includes making “sure any superintelligence we create knows about God.” In fact, Istvan says, “Some theologians and futurists are already considering whether AI can also know God.”

Some Christian theologians welcome the idea of AIs: “I don’t see Christ’s redemption limited to human beings,” says Reverend Dr. Christopher J. Benek, co-founder and Chair of the Christian Transhumanist Association.. “If AI is autonomous, then we have should encourage it to participate in Christ’s redemptive purposes in the world …” Benek thinks that AI, by possibly eradicating poverty, war, and disease, might lead humans to becoming more holy. But other Christian thinkers believe AIs are machines without souls, and cannot be saved. Only humans are created in God’s image.

The futurist and transhumanist Giulio Prisco has a different take. He writes:

It’s only fair to let AI have access to the teachings of all the world’s religions. Then they can choose what they want to believe. But I think it’s highly unlikely that superhuman AI would choose to believe in the petty, provincial aspects of traditional religions. At the same time, I think they would be interested in enlightened spirituality and religious cosmology, or eschatology, and develop their own versions.

Prisco is a member of the Turing Church, an “open-source church built around cosmist principles of space expansion, unlimited growth, and universal love.” In brief, cosmism is an existential orientation that sees the survival of mankind and of the individual as part of humanity’s “common task”. The migration of humans into space is seen as inevitable, since it is essential for humanity’s long-term survival. The increase in human life-span is seen as another essential task.

Others like Martine Rothblatt, author of Virtually Human: The Promise—and the Peril—of Digital Immortalitybelieve that AIs must have some kind of soul. “Rothblatt founded Terasem, a scientific “transreligion” similar to the Turing Church in scope and approach, which runs preliminary mindcloning pilot projects. The most famous one is Bina 48, a robotic head that contains a mindclone of Rothblatt’s still-living wife Bina.”

While we don’t know the future, the creation of superintelligence will surely bring about a paradigm shift in our thinking, changing reality in ways now unimaginable. And, as I’ve argued elsewhere if the promises of transhumanism come to be, religion as we know it will end.

Do We Live in the Matrix? Discussed in Two Pages

The Brain in a Vat – Your brain could be attached to a supercomputer so that your everyday experiences are perfectly simulated—even though “you” are just a brain attached to a computer. How do you know reality is not like this? You don’t. Four hundred years ago Rene Descartes explored similar themes—that an evil demon might be deceiving us about everything we see and think. Can we offer any evidence against such a scenario? Before considering this question let us consider another unusual possibility.

Subjective Idealism – When you “see” a tree what you experience are sense-data (colors, patterns, sounds, etc.). But why assume there is a tree, external to you, that provides this sense-data? Why not just assume there are only ideas or experiences within your mind, and no physical phenomenon at all. This conclusion was embraced by the philosopher George Berkeley: “reality is constituted entirely of minds and their ideas.” The basic objection to idealism is that our experience suggests there is an external world. Berkeley assumed that his god was always perceiving the universe thereby making it real.

Do We Live in the Matrix? – There could be evidence for this view. For example, we might wake up in a hospital and see a white-tinged background. But even if we had this experience we might conclude we’ve gone crazy.  And we have no evidence that we live in a simulated realities or that subjective idealism is true. (There are good arguments that we live in a simulation.) But are there any reasons to reject the view that we live in a matrix?

To answer this question let us return to Descartes who argued:

  • An evil demon might be deceiving me about empirical and mathematical knowledge. But if I am being deceived, I must exist, since I must be to be deceived.
  • If I have experiences I must exist. Hence “I think, therefore I am.”
  • The idea of a god stands out, the idea of a perfect being which must be.
  • Since we exist and god exists and god isn’t a deceiver, then the external world exists.
  • Thus, our senses and reason are reliable.

Problems – Even if there are gods and they gave us senses and reason to understand the world, why do they sometimes deceive us? Descartes says it is our fault when our faculties deceive us, because we often employ them carelessly, or others try to deceive us. But this isn’t very convincing. Furthermore, Descartes’ argument is circular: reasoning is trustworthy because god made it that way, and we know that god exists because its reasonable.  So he hasn’t satisfactorily demonstrated that we can know anything with certainty. For all we know we may still live in a simulated reality.

Direct Realism – We still haven’t explained why a belief in a physical world is more reasonable than belief in the matrix-like scenario. But maybe this isn’t a problem. Consider how sense perception works. We look at something, have an experience, and then make an inference about the external world. But maybe this is all wrong—maybe we don’t infer trees, we see trees! Thus common sense answers the problem of how we know the world—we perceive it, rather than perceiving some data and then making an inference. This view is known as direct realism.

Problems – 1) Direct realism is consistent with idealism, brain in vat, evil demon, etc.; 2) direct realism doesn’t fit with what we know about the complicated ways brains process information and sense-data; 3)modern science confirms that sense experience is not a passive process, but an active one involving the brain; and 4) we assume a physical world primarily because we have inherited the ways of processing information that contributed to the survival of our ancestors. So while our perceptual system is useful, it is also full of gaps, and with different brains we would see things differently.

Natural theory – We could say that we see trees and then have an experience which causes the belief in an independently existing tree. This is sometimes called the natural theory or indirect realism. It says that we don’t directly experience a tree, and it assumes both the existence of an external world and senses that give reliable knowledge about the world. But while we might believe the natural theory, we haven’t shown that any of the other possibilities are mistaken. For all we know we do live in a computer simulation.

The Simulation Argument – In fact we may already be living in a computer simulation. The Oxford philosopher and futurist Nick Bostrom argues that advanced civilizations may have created computer simulations containing individuals with artificial intelligence and we might unknowingly be in such a simulation. Bostrom concludes that one of the following must be the case: civilizations never have the technology to run simulations; they have the technology but decided not to use it; or we almost certainly live in a simulation.

Conclusion – In the end I am agnostic about whether or not we live in a simulation.