Lex Naturalis and Postmodern Post-Sanity

In my experience man and boy, I know of no topic more likely to provoke incompetent and incoherent reply than the topic of Lex Naturalis, or Natural Law.

I have a theory, nay, a speculation merely, as to why this is.

Natural Law is a term of art used by philosophers and theologians to refer to that objective moral standards by which Positive Law, that is, laws men posit, manmade law, is to be judged as good or bad, fair or unfair.

In jurisprudence this same distinction is called by other names: an offense that is malum in se or wicked in and of itself is contradistinguished from an offense that is malum prohibitum or wicked only because it is prohibited.

Murder is malum in se: if the killing of a human being with malice aforethought takes place on the high sea or in some unclaimed wilderness where no human law has sway, a court of law can still justly punish the crime. Its criminality is innate to the act.

Driving on the unlawful side of the highway is malum prohibitum: which side of the road is forbidden is different in England versus New England.  No court of law could justly punish the act if a man drove on a private road on his own land, or if a scientist landed a wheeled vehicle on Mars and trundled it down some turnpike built by long vanished Barsoomians.  An act that is malum prohibitum is wrong only when and where prohibited by Positive Law.

If no Natural Law existed, all discussions of the goodness or fairness of Positive Law would be silenced.

A man might say he preferred one statute or court ruling to another, but this would be a mere psychological report of his arbitrary and subjective tastes, like saying he preferred pie to cake.

No rational debate would take place in parliaments nor in the consciences of kings, contemplating amendments to law, because no standards could exist by which the Positive Law could be judged, or policies proposed to repeal or expand or amend Positive Law.

(Perhaps one could adjudicate lesser or derivative laws by appeal to standards in older or foundational laws, as when local laws are compared to constitutional law, but even this process would be arbitrary in the absence of Natural Law. For what standards would govern the act of comparison? Are laws supposed to be rational, follow precedent, uphold covenants, encourage thrift and virtue? All such questions are meaningless in the absence of Natural Law.)

Why are discussions on this one topic so heated with emotion, and so wanting in intellectual clarity? There are several reasons.

Partly this is due to the modern habit of mind which, dulled by the emotionalism and consumerism of a culture that despises metaphysics and praises instant gratification, cannot understand the definitions of words.

This inability to understand definitions is due in part to the philosophical posture, which is the default assumption of the Dark Age in which we live, that words have no innate meaning, and that men have no duty to be truthful in speech or rigorous in thinking. This assumpti0n rests on the grounds that all language is manipulative propaganda, and all thought is self deception of class interest or self interest.

I call this a “philosophical” posture only out of courtesy. In truth it is antiphilosophy, a dagger of hatred aimed at the roots of what makes rational thought possible: namely, what makes reasoning possible is a metaphysical conviction that truth exists and that logic is valid, an epistemological conviction that truth is discoverable and coherent, and an ontological conviction that the meanings of words exist and point to reality.

Because the modern mind is habituated to regard only the emotional connotation of words and to disregard the logical denotation of words, the modern listener, hearing the phrase “Natural Law” feels himself under no obligation to comprehend what the phrase means.

If the phrase reminds the listener of, for example, the regularity of physics which are also called laws, or reminds him of the great outdoors, or reminds him of the anarchy Hobbes called ‘the State of Nature’, the modern man will assume the phrase refers to that, and will simply ignore explanations and clarifications to the contrary.

The word means what he wants it to mean, not what you want it to mean. That is the glory of the modern mind. And I use the word ‘glory’ to mean ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’

This inability to understand a definition, no matter how clearly explained, in turn is due to the habituation of the modern mind to think by free association rather than by ratiocination. And, as before, I use the word “mind” only out of courtesy. Modern men have assiduously developed a faculty of antimind, which they use to promote a process that can only be called antithought, the ability to string nonsense and rubbish syllables together in a pleasing diapason. It is like a mind found in rational beings, but inverted of its purpose and nature.

Partly the incoherence of the objections the topic of Natural Law arises from a failure of the imagination. Modern minds (I use the term out of courtesy) simply cannot imagine that anything exists other than (1) those facts of the physical sciences which can be expressed as magnitudes, such as mass, length, duration, temperature, current, candlepower, moles of substance; and (2) utterly arbitrary personal preferences as expressions of the unhindered willpower.

By this dichotomy, Natural Law cannot be in the immaterial realm of the will, since the dogma of the modern mind is that nothing can or should hinder the willpower. Nor can Natural Law be in the realm of matter, because matter has no innate willpower, no ability to move on its own, no mind, no purpose, and no moral nature. Nothing is naturally good or evil: what the will says is good is good only for so long as the will so says, and matter is a raw material without moral character, and any use to which any material object is put is licit. Only these two categories exist; all else is puffs of words.

This division into the unhindered will and the blind willessness of matter is the default ontology of the Modern Age.

It is unfortunately an ontological stance very much in keeping with the philosophy of Madison Avenue, which seeks to encourage the desire for instant gratification in a consumer population of subjects, and which operates most freely when images, especially images of sex and power, can be tied to any commercial product or political candidate arbitrarily and freely.

A populous of citizens animated by a sense of decency and shame would not be as easy to manipulate, because that sense of decency would automatically reject as absurd the arbitrary attempt to associate images with goods offered for sale: a virile cowboy with a cigarette, a nubile woman draped over the hood of a car, the juxtaposition of cola bottles with polar bears — a healthy people would laugh. A sober people would want facts, comparisons, and arguments in their advertisements, something much more common in older ads than today.

Postmodernism, albeit animated by a spirit that hates commerce and capitalism, thrives and is aided by the impulse toward arbitrary and inappropriate and illogical free-association of images of sex and power. Such arbitrary mixing of images can only be taken seriously by populations whose poetic imaginations are utterly corrupt.

By the poetic imagination, I mean that faculty in man which makes and apprehends metaphors and archetypes, particularly those literal metaphors called words and ideas.

Unfortunately, the faculty seems instinctive, but, like the conscience, it must be trained and domesticated and in the young rendered fit for civilization.

It is not natural (in the sense of instinctive) for a boy to feel it is  sweet and decorous to die for the ashes of the fathers and the altars of the gods; but this must be inculcated into him, along with a sense of honor that forbids him to steal even when he is hungry and even when no one is looking. Otherwise, in a land of no patriots where all theft is licit, the soldiers will not march and the workingmen will not work.

Poetry, when it is licit, is the attempt to train the young imagination to prefer fit and decent metaphors and imagines, and to have the decent and apt emotional reactions to objects, concepts and events he may encounter. It is unnatural for the youth to react to every image of fatherhood and authority with jeering and defiance, and therefore the poetical imagery which portray all fathers, literal and father-figures, as buffoons and tyrants in order to train the imagination of young so that this seems normal, is likewise unnatural. The young must be taught to love the beautiful, the just, and the good, and to hate what is ugly, unjust, and corrupted.

All of modern art is the pedagogic attempt to use the prestige of art to promote the false concept that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or, in other words, is that attempt to avert, subvert, and invert the formation of natural emotional associations in the young.

Political Correctness, also called Cultural Marxism, is a theory of semantics that has the same goal and operates in the same way as Modern Art. It attempts to use the prestige of courtesy and “sensitivity” to promote the idea that words are labels without truth value, whose only value is as tools of social engineering, to manipulate oneself and others. Words are weapons and opiates. The attempt is to o avert, subvert, and invert the formation of natural linguistic associations between word and object in the young. It is the attempt to destroy both poetry and philosophy.

(Have you noticed how flat and sterile poems and plays and films that adhere to Political Correctness must perforce make themselves? This is because poetry serves truth whereas Political Correctness serves propaganda. There can be no true beauty in the words, no honest emotions in the characters, neither realist nor romanticized actions in the plot, and no deep philosophy in the themes.)

Notice, please that he ontology of the modern age, which admits only of an lawless blind will and an unwilling blind matter, eliminates by that false categorization the categories which make questions such as honor and honesty possible. There is no such thing as honor to the utterly unhindered will, nor is there any such thing as honesty in reference to the blind and meaningless raw material of matter.

If the universe is nothing but the blind yet godlike willpower and the blind void of empty matter, there is no room for the poetic imagination nor for the trained conscience. There is no room for honor or honesty, and, as we shall, barring divine intervention, soon see in the West, no room for civilization.

The survival of society depends on so airy and abstract a question as ontology.

Ontology is the study of being. Ontology concerns questions of what exists in truth versus what exists only as figure or metaphor or consensus. The Modern Age holds as an unquestionable article of faith that skeptical inquiry on a empirical basis can and must question all matters, and must take nothing on faith.

That skeptical inquiry on an empirical basis is limited to empirical questions (id est: measurements of mass, length, duration, temperature, current, candlepower, moles) is a self evident fact hotly denied by modern skeptics, who instantly and vehemently denounce any attempt to limit empiricism to empirical matters as a heresy. They go to great lengths to silence all debate on the matter, to deride and to mock those who question this mystery of their faith. That this is gross hypocrisy as well as manifest self contradiction never crosses the minds of these intellectual giants and rigorous skeptics.

Naturally, for those of us whose brains has not been rotted away by modernism and postmodernism, it seems a simple matter to conclude that empiricism is the proper epistemology to use for natural sciences, which deals with subjects open to verification or invalidation by sense impressions, and not the proper epistemology to use for other philosophical disciplines, as metaphysics, ontology, epistemology, logic, mathematics, ethics, jurisprudence, economics, aesthetics.

For the modern thinker, who dismisses all topics not related to matter in motion as immaterial, there can be no discussion of Natural Law aside from the regularity of natural phenomena we call the laws of physics. For him, it is morally wrong to discuss what is morally right and wrong, because these entities do not exist in matter, and cannot be measured.

For the postmodern thinker (and, yet again, I use the word “thinker” as a courtesy to refer to a mental process with opposite goals and means to rational thought) all reasoning and all debate on all topics, not merely those of physics, is a sinister attempt of the strong to oppress and deceive the weak my means of a “narrative.” What the postmoderns mean by this nonword is a mystery of their faith.

For the uninitiated, I will explain that postmoderns are voodoo doctors or Archimages of Roke who believe that words in and of themselves have the power to enchant men’s minds and change reality.

The postmoderns are ergo afraid that theologians and philosophers and especially economists will use words to justify certain laws or policies or civilized conventions that will maintain their hated enemy, civilization, once called “Christendom”, but now called “The West” or “The First World.”

Rather than using words to show why the inarticulate illiteracy of barbarism is better than civilization, the postmodern thinker spins meaningless noises together to making a pleasing sound, hoping this will stun the unwary student into believing something vaguely bad or unfair is being perpetrated upon them when they uphold law and order and decency, that it is somehow against their interests. In effect, the postmodernists are doing exactly what they accuse their enemies of doing, using words or “narratives” to cast a spell to oppress and deceive the weak.

For the modern or postmodern ethicist (and, for the final time, I use the word as a courtesy) there is no discipline of ethics, no philosophy, and nothing to study nor discuss. Ethics is the crudest possible version of hedonism, where any pleasure, not just enlightened and long term pleasures consonant with the social good, are sacred: but perverted pleasures, particularly when destructive of human souls and human lives, are more sacred than decent, natural, normal or harmless pleasures.

This is the paramount reason why objections of the Natural Law are notoriously ludicrous: those who make the objections, if they have been influenced by modern or postmodern nonthinking, cannot articulate an objection because they cannot imagine a universe where there is any Natural Law, any objective moral reasoning, any hindrance or opposition or even slight criticism of any desire, filthy or whole, sane or insane, depraved or healthy, on any grounds whatsoever, aside from possible harm to others or the hindrance of their pursuit of desires.

(And even there, membership in certain special protected groups or special classes of people makes harms to you significant: persons outside the protected class are non-entities, and harm to them vaguely funny.)

The idea of Natural Law is an unimaginable as the Ninth Dimension to a mind conditioned to parrot word-noises which uphold immediate consequence-free indulgence in gross physical pleasures, preferably sexual ones, preferably illicit or perverted ones, as the sole source and standard of goodness.

Unfortunately, discussions of Natural Law pursue the question of what is and is not a duty, specifically duties that make a demand even in the absence of Positive Law.

Nowhere is it established that the Natural Law promotes human happiness when and if such happiness conflicts with human virtue. The only reason why we have different words for duty and desire is because human nature makes it so that we frequently do not desire to do our duty.

The reason why we have modern, by which I mean dishonest and lunatic, philosophy is to invent excuses to justify ignoring duty to indulge in desires, particularly and especially abnormal sexual desires; the reason why we have ancient, by which I mean honestly-meant and sane, philosophy is to refute such excuses and inculcate a sense of shame into the human breast, and an ability to face the turmoils and disappointments of life unelated by success and undespairing of failure — to this day, we speak of “taking something philosophically” meaning with the stoic dignity of a civilized man. The purpose of modern philosophy is to do the opposite, to reduce man to barbarism.

This is done in such writers as Marx and Nietzsche and Freud by glorifying the envious desires and the pride of the will and the spontaneous yet infantile emotions so that any opposition to self-gratification is seen as a sacrilege. Instead of bearing privation with manly fortitude, or practicing chastity or courage or calmness, the modern philosophers invent bogus arguments to sacramentalize any and all abnormal, infantile, or selfish human desire, so that the gullible victim of modern philosophy reacts to any hindrance or criticism of instant gratification as if his sacred rights were being trampled. This allows for the curious and specifically modern spectacle of men publicly waxing wroth with righteous indignation whenever their unrighteousness is not praised as righteous!

I point to the behavior displayed by ‘activists’ who engage in objectively meaningless protests (Occupy Wall Street was particularly postmodern in its lack of defined goal or purpose) or who mau-mau sellers of chicken sandwiches for being Christian, or ruin the careers of makers of Bible story films by labeling them antisemites, or who ostracize and bedevil those who do not care to have public funds pay for killing babies in the womb.

All four of the causes I mention follow the same general rule: all four causes swell up like toads with self righteous indignation when crossed. All causes stoop to criminal means, vandalism, death threats, and so on, to support and spread their agenda, because their philosophy says their cause is so righteous that the ends justify the means. All these causes howl like barbarians when they are beaten, and all of them boast like barbarians when they beat others, and none of them treats their opposition with the manly firmness or manly chivalry or evenness of temper which is the hallmark of civilized behavior.

Natural Law is the concept that some basis exists for the customs and laws of men, and some goal toward which the laws and customs go seeking. Without Natural Law, poetic imagination and ultimate language itself is reduced to squalor and Newspeakish jabberwocky, customs and laws are reduced to a conspiracy of the strong to bewitch and oppress the weak, contracts and covenants are void for being meaningless, honor and honesty reduced to mere words, and, in short, civilization itself is found to have no foundation.

269 Comments

  1. Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

    In my experience, the main objection to natural law is that people tend to appeal to it to forbid things which, in my best guess at the objective morality, are not immoral.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      By odd coincidence, it is always the very things every civilization and every barbarian tribe of all history and prehistory has condemned as immoral, and in which you yourself also indulge: self indulgence in your passions and appetites, usually sexual passions, usually unlawful sexual passions, such as fornication, pornography, adultery, ad nauseam.

      This is one time the trifling argument that your opponents have an inferior moral character (due to intolerance or republicanism or whathaveyou) is self defeating. Because we are arguing about whether or not objective morality exists: and if it does not, you have no basis on which to urge any listener to abandon a falsehood, not even the whimsical and illogical basis, attempted here, of ad hominem — because if there is no moral law, then I am under no duty to change my stance even if such a change would save me from being morally inferior.

      If there is no moral law, there there is no moral inferiority.

      • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

        I did not argue that anyone was morally inferior; I argued that they were factually mistaken about morality. Nor did I say that there is no objective morality; I argued (well, rather, I stated; I didn’t give an argument) that you are mistaken about its content.

        every civilization and every barbarian tribe of all history and prehistory has condemned as immoral

        I think you may find that they condemned many things rather less strongly than you do; and there is also a difference between an absolute condemnation, and recognising that some things are not good when taken to excess. I myself don’t drink, but I don’t think it’s immoral to do so in moderation; it’s immoral, however, to drink so much that you can no longer support yourself, have healthy friendships, and so on. Likewise with pre-marital sex, porn, what-have-you. All that aside, I would also suggest that many of the cultures you mention were making pragmatic rather than moral rules. Premarital sex without reliable contraception is bad because it leads to children without proper economic support; the immorality does not lie in the sex but in its probable consequence. Reduce the consequence (either its probability or its bad effects) and the act becomes less immoral. Again, this is not an argument against the existence of absolute morality, it is merely saying that the immorality of an act derives from the probability of a bad consequence multiplied by the badness, and that some acts have therefore become less immoral as technology increased.

        • Comment by Patrick:

          “Reduce the consequence (either its probability or its bad effects)”

          Premarital sex (for instance) is not bad because sex probably or generally has bad effects, and, therefore, is a wrongful act per se. Marriage is not an institutional means by which we mitigate harm or decrease the threat of it; it isn’t like an OSHA policy or road signage or some other thing. Or so I think.

          Conception is a good, babies are a good, sexual release is a good, etc. These are some natural consequences of sex, which marriage is intended to maximalize the benefits of.

          Having sex with somebody outside of marriage does not optimize the results of sex.

          • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

            Conception is a good, babies are a good, sexual release is a good, etc.

            I would say that babies are good if, and only if, the parents have the resources – mental, emotional, social, and economic – to support them. I suggest that this is not generally the case for unmarried couples. So, in the absence of contraception, it seems to me that your statement that marriage is not like an OSHA policy seems to me simply wrong. Marriage is a damage-control measure; it ensures that only supportable babies are born. Of course this isn’t the only function of marriage, but in the context of sexual morality I think it’s the most important one.

            • Comment by Patrick:

              “Marriage is a damage-control measure; it ensures that only supportable babies are born.”

              Well, of course we all know it doesn’t do this at all, but I think I get what you’re saying – in the context of sexual morality, I take you to mean that that marriage and condoms serve the same purpose.

              Abort, retry, fail?

              • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

                Well, of course we all know [marriage] doesn’t do this at all

                Well, of course no system is perfect, but that at least is the intention of marriage. When people saved up to get married, it wasn’t because they couldn’t afford an apartment, it was because they couldn’t afford a child.

                I take you to mean that marriage and condoms serve the same purpose.

                Not all of the same purposes. The avoid-unsupported-children functions of marriage, or to be still more accurate, of an enforced rule against premarital sex, can be done by condoms, with the obvious bonus that people then get sexual release more often – as you say, this is a good. It does not seem to me that marriage has any other functions that may be called moral; it may of course have social, economic, or interpersonal functions, which condoms do not perform.

                • Comment by Suburbanbanshee:

                  To have two people agree to love, honor, and take care of each other as long as they both shall live, forsaking sex with all others — and to have those two people be a man and a woman, as different as two sexes can be, coming together to become like one person — that seems to create a morally good, brave, and kindly thing. Its goodness may be expressed in things that have social and economic and interpersonal functions; but if marriage is not good, what human thing is morally good?

                • Comment by Mary:

                  The avoid-unsupported-children functions of marriage, or to be still more accurate, of an enforced rule against premarital sex, can be done by condoms

                  No it can’t. The failure rate is entirely too high. Furthermore, the illusion of immunity caused by contraceptive use can actually increase the number of unsupported children, and causes those creating those children to regard them not as a natural and predictable consequence of their actions but as a malignant infliction on them.

                  • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

                    Well, now we have a factual and not a moral disagreement. The failure rate of condoms, plus female contraception, plus not having sex when you’re drunk, seems to me rather too small to be worth bothering about.

                    • Comment by wrf3:

                      No, you still have a moral disagreement, namely, “this is too small to worry about” is a value judgement, hence a moral judgement.

                    • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

                      I could be wrong, but it seems to me that Mary disagrees with me over how large the failure rate is, which is purely factual. It may be the case that, after we come to an agreement on the facts, we will still disagree on the value judgement, but we have not gotten to that stage yet.

                    • Comment by The OFloinn:

                      Re: failure rates. It could also be that the disagreement lies in what constitutes a failure. There are two approaches: technical and system.

                      1. A technical failure is a failure of the technological object; in this case, a “leaker.” I once ran across a newspaper story about the reject rates from shipment lots of condoms that was rather cleverly written to conceal the unit failure rate. Only the lot failure rate was given. But the lot failure rate along with the total number of lots and the aggregate sample size enabled me to deduce the sample size per lot and that, along with the number of leakers per sample that were acceptable (it was not 0) let me consult the OC-curves in good-ol’ MIL-STD 105D and estimate the Lot Percent Defective: 5%. Depending on which end of the condom you are on, this may be regarded as “small.”
                      We also skip the question of how well the Water Test for leakers guards against leakage of sperm cells, which I think may be smaller than water molecules. I’m not sure.
                      2. A system failure takes into account all the elements of the system: object, method, person, etc. Failure Analysis (as in Fault Trees and Failure Modes and Effects Analysis) take all system elements into account. A perfectly impermeable condom may still be ineptly applied by a hormone-crazed boy more interested in getting off than in protecting the sex object from the consequences. Since the end of shotgun weddings, there are no consequences for the boy, with the predictable results.

                      The total number of contrary events is a product of the failure rate of the system (p) and the number of opportunities for failure (N). So pN can increase dramatically if N increases dramatically, even if p remains “small.”

                      Hope this helps.

                    • Comment by Mary:

                      You were the one who asserted that “fact” that condom usage prevented a problem as grounds for your moral assertion.

                    • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

                      Well, “condoms” was a shorthand; I should have said “modern contraception”. Which does include a certain amount of advice about one’s personal behaviour and regulation of sex. The point is that we can now avoid the damage of out-of-wedlock children by means other than the one forced on our ancestors, namely enforcing marriage before sex.

                    • Comment by The OFloinn:

                      we can now avoid the damage of out-of-wedlock children by [other] means

                      Then something is wrong, for the percentage of oow children has increased, catastrophically so in the black community.

                    • Comment by Mary:

                      And the damage to oow children is manifest and enormous.

                      Not to mention the other damage that unchastity can do. We have here a person whose defense of unchastity consists of first offering a falsehood, and then dismisses that it is false as not “worth bothering about.”

                      Let us quote Thomas Aquinas: “Unchastity’s first-born daughter is blindness of spirit.”

                  • Comment by The OFloinn:

                    the illusion of immunity caused by contraceptive use can actually increase the number of unsupported children

                    There is a name for this principle in Risk Analysis, which in a just universe I ought to remember. It is why evident safety features in automobiles (e.g., seat belts) increase speeding and reckless driving; while non-evident features (e.g., crumple zones, collapsible steering columns) do not. It is sometimes called the “risk thermostat.”

        • Comment by Patrick:

          “I argued that they were factually mistaken about morality.”

          This is the Socratic line, no?

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          No, your argument was that the objection to Natural Law was that “people” (in that case, you mean me) tend to use it to forbid things which are not necessarily immoral, which is to say, that “people” are using an illegitimate argument, mistaking their personal preferences for objective moral fact.

          But by the same argument, if all philosophy is merely projection and rationalization, so is yours. “People” (in this case, meaning you) preach moral relativism to seek sad excuses for their own immorality.

          In this case, you are preaching a limited sort of relativism called consequentialism, the doctrine that the ends justify the means, or, specifically, that any immoral act whose consequences can be mitigated or avoided is not truly immoral.

          Unfortunately one of the consequences of “consequentialism” is that honest men will take you seriously, and mistrust your moral character.

          • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

            [W]hich is to say, that “people” are using an illegitimate argument, mistaking their personal preferences for objective moral fact.

            But by the same argument, if all philosophy is merely projection and rationalization, so is yours.

            If some particular person has mistaken his preferences for objective moral fact, it does not follow that all assertions of objective moral fact are merely personal preference. Please do not put leaps of logic in my mouth, they taste bad. In any case not all errors arise from personal preference. May I not say that you have made an honest mistake?

            In this case, you are preaching a limited sort of relativism called consequentialism, the doctrine that the ends justify the means, or, specifically, that any immoral act whose consequences can be mitigated or avoided is not truly immoral.

            And what the devil is to make an act bad or good, except its consequences? What other standard can you possibly apply?

      • Comment by Gian:

        Are you allowed to use the argumentum ad populum?

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          Forgive me for being snide, but you should not use Latin phrases for logical informal errors if you don’t know what they mean. I was not making the argument that because all men condemn certain practices, those practices are therefore wrong. That would be ad Populum.

          I was contrasting my observation of arguments against Natural Law are never in favor of a stricter moral code but always in favor of a laxer, particularly in sexual matters, with the observation of Dr Andreassen that argument in favor of Natural Law are always attempts to impose morals on matters which are objectively not immoral.

          • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

            You somewhat misunderstood my point. I was not objecting that there is no natural law; it seems to me that what you call natural law, I call objective morality, and the name ought not to matter. I was merely observing that the use of the phrase “natural law” is, for presumably historical reasons, strongly correlated with errors about what the law actually says.

  2. Comment by wrf3:

    Natural Law is the concept that some basis exists for the customs and laws of men, and some goal toward which the laws and customs go seeking.

    Right. Next, there are only two major goals — life and death. Everything else falls into one of those two categories. This is trivially shown to be so, since life enables all of our choices, and death ends them. So, what is the goal of Nature? One could argue that evolution “demands” life; one could also argue that the universe will end in maximum entropy, in which no life is possible.

    Natural law, therefore, while well defined, is a figment of the imagination. It is the tenuous consensus of creatures that have no fixed goals and who express their personal preferences as if they were written in stone.

    • Comment by Mary:

      Well, this is a good example of the attitude and reasoning Mr. Wright spoke of.

      • Comment by John C Wright:

        I notice you call it “reasoning” for the same reason I do, out of politeness. wrf3 here lists a list of more or less random statements, all of which are gratuitous assertions, none of which he backs up by identifying his axioms or drawing his conclusions, and ends with a triumphant declaration of his first assumption.

        The statement that there are two major goals, life and death, is an assertion that there are no goals related to truth or beauty or justice, despite that all men know how admirable are those heroes, a Socrates, a Leander, a Nathan Hale, who voluntarily lay down their lives not to achieve death but to serve truth or beauty or justice. This is to say nothing of martyrs who die for divine things. So, in effect, the first statement rules out of the equation any motives other than self-interest and self-destruction. That is, it rules out even the possibility of a discussion of objective moral norms, i.e. Natural Law

        After some meandering jabberwocky and high-sounding nonsense words, wrf3 comes to his point, he waves the black flag of intellectual anarchy, and announces as if he had proved the point that Natural Law does not exist, by stating that it is the consensus (I would not be surprised if by this perhaps he means “the narrative”?) of creatures of no fixed purpose who express their own imaginations as if they were objective. And so with a sneer, he begs the question he asks.

        Yes, if one assumes by definition that no goals and no purpose and no moral code and no basis for truth or beauty or justice cna possibly exist, one can and must draw the conclusion, as a trivial tautology, that no basis for such discussions exist.

        But his own behavior, merely by taking the time to write two paragraphs of 107 words, merely by that, shows him to be either and ignoramus who does not understand the meaning of his own acts, or a hypocrite who hides that meaning. Because his words make no sense and have no point if he does not assume we are under a moral duty to seek the truth and believe what is true because it is true.

        If we were under a duty only to believe what suited us or pleased us or served our self interest, no argument would be offered to us except an appeal to our interests — that the cost of disbelief is high and the rewards of belief great. But no such argument is here presented.

        The two paragraphs present us with what could have been (had it been coherent) with a reductio: given that there are only two possibilities for the final cause of nature, life and death, and given that morality serves neither of these two, ergo Natural final cause (here conflated with Natural Law) is a figment of the imagination.

        This is an argument for the truth of the proposition on the grounds that it is true. However, if it is true, then there is no Natural Law, and, indeed no Positive Law nor any moral duties whatsoever, including the duty of a philosopher, or any honest man, compelling him to abandon false belief when truths presents itself. In the absence of such a duty, the fact that something happens to be true require no action, not even the mental act of consenting to the truth, on our part. He is calling on our sense of justice to admit that, despite what is in our self interest to believe, we must renounce our comforting imaginations and join him in the airless wasteland of nothingness, where no truth is true.

        In short, wrf3 in effect is saying that his listeners have a moral duty, a duty imposed by their love of truth, to believe that there is neither morality, nor duty, nor truth.

        This is the typical stark idiocy of the Modern Age, endlessly repeated in nearly every philosopher since Kant. The moderns make arguments which simply refute themselves with simple paradoxes a schoolboy could see through.

        The simple illogical of the modern self-impeaching rhetoric never ceases to shock and appall. And such rhetoric never apologizes, corrects itself, or notices the error. wrf3 will not reply to my sharp criticism with anything but a sneer and a personal attack: his philosophy robs him of all other weapons.

        This and similar arrant and arrogant contempt for basic logic is the hallmark of our age, which is why I call it a Dark Age. No previous point in history ever had to absolute a contempt for philosophy, for reason, for virtue, for truth, for justice, for goodness.

        The basic image of the modern age to keep in mind is the picture of a retarded gardener sitting in a tree busily and happily sawing off the branch on which he sits.

        • Comment by wrf3:

          In short, wrf3 in effect is saying that his listeners have a moral duty, a duty imposed by their love of truth, to believe that there is neither morality, nor duty, nor truth.

          Except, of course, I said no such thing!

          I began by agreeing with you that morality is based on goal seeking behavior. Things that lead toward a goal are deemed to be good and things that lead away from a goal are deemed to be bad.

          So of course morality exists. We are, after all, goal-seeking creatures. But if you’re going to talk about Natural Law — goals that Nature itself says we ought to pursue — you must therefore hold to natural goals, and I wanted to know what fundamental goal, or goals, exist in nature.

          You wrote, The statement that there are two major goals, life and death, is an assertion that there are no goals related to truth or beauty or justice.

          That’s a blatant misrepresentation of what I said. I said that there were two major goals: life and death. That does not exclude other goals, such as truth or beauty or justice. So you owe me an apology.

          But you help make my point, since without life we can not pursue truth, or beauty, or justice.

          Therefore, if natural law exists then life has to be a natural goal. But where is this found in Nature, especially since life is so ephemeral? The universe is headed for maximum entropy.

          • Comment by hrefn:

            Life itself cannot be the ultimate natural goal, the sine qua non goal without which the other goals of truth, beauty and justice cannot be pursued. Else, I could preserve my life by practicing injustice, since life is the ultimate natural goal, and who could criticize me for pursuing the ultimate natural goal.
            There must be an ultimate natural goal more important than life.

          • Comment by Zach:

            Aren’t you mixing up GOALS and OUTCOMES? Besides, there are scenarios where the goal of life (survival, reproduction, etc.) is subservient to the goal of eudaimonia, or of honor, or of justice, or of love.

            • Comment by wrf3:

              I understand that that’s the claim: that life is subservient to other goals. But, typically, one gives up one’s life so that another might live. There is, in fact, a biological answer to why altruism develops in some species and not others.

              But those who hold to Natural law have to show why this is so from nature, and most such adherents don’t know enough about game theory to know why they think the way they do. So, point to something in nature and show me why your claim must be so.

              And, no, I’m not confusing goals with outcomes. A goal is “win the chess match.” An outcome is what actually happens.

              • Comment by The OFloinn:

                But those who hold to Natural law have to show why this is so from nature …. So, point to something in nature

                See? You don’t understand what is meant by “natural law.”

                most such adherents don’t know enough about game theory to know why they think the way they do

                That’s like saying a ball falls to the ground “because” of the law of gravity. Game theory, like any other theory, is an attempt to abstract a model of the reality. It has nothing to do with ‘why’ anyone thinks anything; only with what strategies have which outcomes under certain (usually unrealistic) assumptions.

              • Comment by Patrick:

                “a biological answer to why altruism develops in some species and not others.”

                What is the answer?

          • Comment by Patrick:

            “goal seeking behavior”

            What other kind of behavior is there?

            Involuntary actions aren’t ‘behavior’, of course.

          • Comment by John C Wright:

            And of course you did not say it. You are unaware of the philosophical axioms from which you draw your conclusions.

            I will try to dispel some of this unawareness. Please tell me: on what grounds, aside from Natural Law, do you expect your appeal to the truthfulness of your argument to be met?

            Should I believe your argument because it is true?

            Should I answer your questions and ponder your points fairly and honestly because fairness is just and honesty is virtuous?

            But if Life is ephemeral, by your own logic, I am under no moral duty to be loyal to the truth, or fair, or honest. Therefore on what grounds do you make your appeal? Why do you have standing to speak? To what standard of what judgment should you and I agree to appeal to settle the polite dispute between us?

            As for the rest, no apology will be forthcoming. Your request for an apology is contemptible. If you express yourself badly, rephrase your claim. But do not flinch if I point out the logical implications of what you did say, using the words you did use.

            If you say that there are two goals, life and death, and you show neither goal need be derived from natural law, unless you accept that these goals are the only two, you cannot logically conclude that no goals are derived from natural law. Your Reductio ad absurdum suffers the formal logical error of irrelevance, and the informal logical error of false dichotomy.

            Even granting your argument, all you have proven is that one cannot deduce Natural Law from the fact that life exists nor from the fact that death puts a period to it. I don’t disagree with this. One cannot deduce an ‘ought’ from an ‘is.’

            One also cannot deny the existence of a principle which forms the only logical basis of one’s own claim. As you do here, and have done twice.

            I ask again: on what do you base your expectation or moral claim that you have the right to be treated fairly and honestly by me or by any listener when you put forward conclusion you allege to be the truth of the matter being discussed?

            On what do you base the assumption that I or any listener has the duty to listen to the truth when you speak it?

            On what do you base your expectation or moral claim that you yourself in your own thoughts must face the truth even when unpleasant, provided only that it is true?

            On what do you base the assumption that you have a duty speak the truth when you know it?

            If you do not make that assumption, on what ground do you speak or listen to profound matters being discussed? I am not asking for a psychological report of the emotion motivating you: I am asking for your legal and philosophical rights and duties, and for their justification.

            If you cannot answer these questions, why can you not?

            • Comment by wrf3:

              And of course you did not say it. You are unaware of the philosophical axioms from which you draw your conclusions.

              So if I asked you to list my axioms, you would do that? It appears that you think you know what my axioms are, but it would be interesting to see if your imagination matches my reality.

              Please tell me: on what grounds, aside from Natural Law, do you expect your appeal to the truthfulness of your argument to be met?
              The grounds of the principle of non-contradiction and the hope that such is a shared goal. I have gotten into philosophical discussions with people who cheerfully admit that X and not X are both true at the same time and in the same way. They understand and agree that a contradiction exists, and yet refuse to admit that anything is wrong. Life’s to short for that.

              Should I believe your argument because it is true?
              It all depends on where you want to go. If we have a common destination then we might find a common path. On the other hand, you might get to Poughkeepsie via Scranton and I through Albany. Or maybe you end up in Seattle and I in Miami.

              Should I answer your questions and ponder your points fairly and honestly because fairness is just and honesty is virtuous?
              It depends on whether or not you want to be honest and fair. You tell me your goals and I’ll tell you if your behavior has a chance of getting you there.

              But if Life is ephemeral, by your own logic, I am under no moral duty to be loyal to the truth, or fair, or honest.
              Except that’s not necessarily so. Just because an individual’s life is ephemeral doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have lasting repercussions with the rest of the community. Regardless of how long you or I might live, neither of us are islands. The community survives us, but we affect the community. We can, if we so desire, ignore the eventual heat death of the universe, and work out how to have communities that survive until then. We can, as the saying goes, “choose life.”

              But do not flinch if I point out the logical implications of what you did say, using the words you did use.
              I have no problem with that. It’s pointing out the logical implications of what I didn’t say, with words I didn’t use, that I have a problem with. Hang me with my own rope, but don’t wrap your shoelaces around my neck and tell me I did it to myself.

              If you say that there are two goals, life and death,…

              I said that there were two major goals. That does not preclude other sub-goals.

              … and you show neither goal need be derived from natural law, …
              No, I asked how to derive one of these goals from what is observable in nature. Does Nature have the goal of life? Death? Both? Neither? Suppose I want to choose life as a goal. Is there anything I can find in Nature to support that, other than my own biological wiring?

              … unless you accept that these goals are the only two, you cannot logically conclude that no goals are derived from natural law. Your Reductio ad absurdum suffers the formal logical error of irrelevance, and the informal logical error of false dichotomy.
              Now we’ve come to the question of the cart and the horse. If life is a goal, then it can be shown how notions such as justice, love, honor, beauty, etc… arise in support of attaining that goal. But if you want to claim that these things are basic, and not derivative, then all I ask is a rigorous proof that this is so. For example, where does one find justice in nature? “… under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all.”

              Even granting your argument, all you have proven is that one cannot deduce Natural Law from the fact that life exists nor from the fact that death puts a period to it. I don’t disagree with this.

              You have a funny way of excoriating those you end up agreeing with.

              One cannot deduce an ‘ought’ from an ‘is.’

              Oh, but you can, if the ‘is’ is a goal. If the goal is “win at chess”, then you can derive the oughts. If the goal is “life”, then you can derive the oughts. If the goal is “death”, then you can derive the oughts. That’s why if you’re going to talk about Natural Law, you have to talk about Natural Goals. Since it “rains on the just and the unjust,” what goals does Nature have? One can argue that natural law proponents are just projecting their personal desires upon nature. I’m asking you to prove me wrong.

              One also cannot deny the existence of a principle which forms the only logical basis of one’s own claim. As you do here, and have done twice.
              Which principle have I denied? I hope you aren’t confusing agreement on a principle as an axiom over the ontological basis for that principle.

              I ask again: on what do you base your expectation or moral claim that you have the right to be treated fairly and honestly by me or by any listener when you put forward conclusion you allege to be the truth of the matter being discussed?

              Your claim to be a Christian. Such behavior is expected of Christians. If you were, say, a politician or a lawyer, then I might not have such an expectation.

              On what do you base the assumption that I or any listener has the duty to listen to the truth when you speak it?
              Assumes facts not in evidence.

              On what do you base your expectation or moral claim that you yourself in your own thoughts must face the truth even when unpleasant, provided only that it is true?
              I’ve spent most of my live building mental systems that happen to incarnate in silicon. My experience is that systems with inherent contradictions crash and burn (if only metaphorically). My biology is such that I neither like crashing nor burning, even if only metaphorically.

              • Comment by Patrick:

                “but it would be interesting to see if your imagination matches my reality.”

                Point of order: your axioms are not ‘your reality’ – they are the logical basis of your arguments, sound or no, whether you admit them or no.

                • Comment by wrf3:

                  Oh, thank you, Patrick. It took me minutes to stop laughing over that one.

                  I’m not advocating solipsism; by “matches my reality” I meant “matches the set of axioms that I do, in fact, happen to hold.”

                  And I’m always happy to state the axioms I’m using. But since our esteemed host thinks he knows what mine are, I’d like to see just how much of an oracle he really is, first.

                  • Comment by Patrick:

                    Cool.

                    “I’d like to see just how much of an oracle he really is, first.”

                    Me too.

                  • Comment by Mary:

                    My oh my. How desperate your plight must be if you regard a standard English definition as laughable.

                    • Comment by wrf3:

                      Mary, I admit to not understanding which standard English definition I find funny. What I was laughing at was Patrick taking what I said to be an indication of solipsism. And I wasn’t laughing at Patrick — I was laughing at how what I said was construed to mean. Patrick used the imprecision in what I said and turned my words against me in a way I found hilarious. I’d by him a beer (or other beverage of his choice) if I could.

                      If you’re referring to my earlier statement to John that I find his claim to “natural law” to be a figment of his imagination, well, that’s the heart of the matter. If there is a yardstick that exists in nature then he ought to be able to point to it so that everyone can use it and come to the same conclusions he does (within the limits of measurement, of course). The fact that he is having an “is too, is not” argument with Andreassen shows that he can’t produce that yardstick. And vice versa. What’s more, they’re arguing over something that has been argued for thousands of years. Progress simply hasn’t been made. So, where’s this yardstick they speak of?

                  • Comment by John C Wright:

                    What? I don’t know what your axioms are. I only read your words. That you do not know what logically follows from those words makes you a man perhaps unskilled in reasoning, but it does not make me an oracle.

                    • Comment by John C Wright:

                      “If you’re referring to my earlier statement to John that I find his claim to “natural law” to be a figment of his imagination, well, that’s the heart of the matter. If there is a yardstick that exists in nature then he ought to be able to point to it so that everyone can use it and come to the same conclusions he does (within the limits of measurement, of course). The fact that he is having an “is too, is not” argument with Andreassen shows that he can’t produce that yardstick. And vice versa. What’s more, they’re arguing over something that has been argued for thousands of years. Progress simply hasn’t been made. So, where’s this yardstick they speak of?”

                      The yardstick you ask me to produce is in your hand. The act of asking me to produce it is a demand for evidence; but a demand for evidence cannot be made unless there is a moral imperative to be honest and forthcoming in debate. Hence, the mere act of asking to see this yardstick indicates that you yourself are using it.

              • Comment by The OFloinn:

                It depends on whether or not you want to be honest and fair.

                This is an appeal to the natural law, which entangles you in the principle of non-contradiction. You deny the natural law exists, and therefore cannot appeal to it. The remainder of your response is similar. For example, Such behavior is expected of Christians only because Christians recognize the natural law.

              • Comment by John C Wright:

                Your answer is that I should be honest if and only if I want to be, and that that you want to be honest because such is the prudent way to escape from the pain caused by inherent contradictions. By this logic, I have no duty to answer you honestly, and you need be honest with yourself only when you deem it prudent.

                Then why are you putting forward an argument? Why are you attempting to appeal to my reason? Why are you attempting to appeal to the moral duty we both recognize (I recognize it explicitly, you only tacitly) that it is morally wrong to be intellectually dishonest during a debate?

                Suppose I decide, perhaps because my biology differs from yours, or for any other arbitrary reason, not to be honest with you, neither to answer your questions nor treat them seriously: is this a moral wrong?

                Suppose it so. Have I or have I not failed to treat you and your argument respectfully and justly as a fairminded man should have done?

                If you answer “such is your choice” as you have done above, that is no answer, and the conversation is over. Give me a real answer or admit you cannot answer.

                I am asking you the basis of choice, in situations, like this one, where the choice is not arbitrary. Preferring honesty to dishonesty is not like preferring brunettes to blondes.

          • Comment by The OFloinn:

            I began by agreeing with you that morality is based on goal seeking behavior.

            Except that that was not what Mr. Wright claimed. He said “X!” and you are saying, “I agree: ‘Q!'”

    • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

      You appear to be confusing “natural law” with “laws of nature”, which is another reason why “objective morality” is a much better phrase. Try this as an experiment: Copy-paste Mr Wright’s post, then search-and-replace “natural law” with “objective morality”. See if that clarifies what is actually being said.

      • Comment by Zach:

        I’m not satisfied with that term, really. I believe the “Natural Law” worldview means that there are actual real standards of Truth, Beauty, and Virtue. One element that is true is that a triangle, by its NATURE, has three angles. Now, no one has ever seen a perfect triangle with no deviation in the lines (electrons wobble, right?) or area. But that doesn’t mean triangles aren’t real. Maybe a bad example. But the idea that truth exists is encompassed in Natural Law thinking, and is expressed in the nature of objects and actions.

        • Comment by wrf3:

          Yes, a triangle is a bad example. It confuses the difference between is and ought. A triangle “is”. Laws are about what “ought” to be — the goals that should be sought. You can’t have oughts without goals; you can’t have natural law without natural goals. Hence my question to John: what goal, or goals, are Natural? Note: E=mc2, or other expressions of physical behavior, are descriptions of “is”. They are not descriptions of “ought”.

          • Comment by Zach:

            Nope, you’re mixed up. Natural Law is first principles, it’s the IS that creates the OUGHT. Fairness is an IS, not an OUGHT. Virtue is an IS, not an OUGHT.

            You might not be able to measure it with a yardstick, but that doesn’t make them less real.

            You’re mixing up Natural Law with Positive Law.

          • Comment by John C Wright:

            If murder were made legal, would the statute that made it so be just?

            Answer that question without making a reference, explicit or implied, to Natural Law.

            Once you realize you cannot answer the question without reference to Natural Law, you can ask a sensible question to me about it.

            As it is, your questions are merely rhetorical assertions of the same, tired, stupid, paradox which forms the whole of the excruciatingly tiny, drab and foolish circle of modern thought: nihilism, materialism, pragmatism, socialism, and “ism”ism. The entire modern rejection of reason and philosophy is echoed in your hopeless question.

            The assertion that Natural Law is to serve Natural Goals, but then limiting “natural” statements to scientific ones is self-defeating (because if the second half of the sentence is true, then the first half, which is an imperative not written as a scientific statement, is not true.)

            Natural Law serves the goals of truth, beauty, justice. You may ask, “what point is there to truth?” but you utter a stupid paradox if you expect a truthful answer. You may ask, “what point is there to justice?” but you have no right to complain if you are treated unfairly in debate by a rhetorician who gives you no honest answer. You may ask, “what point is there to beauty?” but anyone capable of asking that question has left the human race.

            Natural Law is a Kantian category without which the discipline of jurisprudence and ethic, that is, thinking rationally about how one ought and ought not to act, cannot take place. The category concerns all questions of principle on which Positive Law (that is, manmade or posited law) is based, such as concern for equity, fairness, and reliability in principles of behavior.

            Natural Law is law because goodness is good. Does that answer the question?

            • Comment by The OFloinn:

              John: a demurral.
              Natural law goes to Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas and the rest of the A-team. Kant can’t take credit for anything but mucking up the landscape. He was once described as “worse than Descartes and Hume combined, largely because he was Descartes and Hume combined!” Kant was among those who denied that natures exist.

              • Comment by John C Wright:

                Kant, for all his drawbacks, made one sterling contribution to philosophy, namely, the concept of categories of thought, that is, the metaphysical principle that there are certain things without which we cannot think. Myself, I deemed this to be a complete and accurate answer to the radical skepticism of David Hume, when Hume asked how we can know there is cause and effect when we cannot see cause and effect empirically. Kant’s answer was that cause and effect is a category without which empirical reasoning is not possible.

                But let me clear up an ambiguity. When Kant listed certain categories of thought, he did not list Natural Law as a category of moral reasoning. Natural Law is not one of the categories of Kantian philosophy. It is not, in that sense, a “Kantian category.”

                But Natural Law is an inescapable metaphysical principle without which moral reasoning rests on no basis. So it is, in that sense, what Kant would have called a category. It is a Kantian “category.”

                So I am saying that Natural Law is not a “Kantian category” but I am saying it is a Kantian “category.” Hmm. There might be clearer ways of saying this, but I hope you get my drift.

          • Comment by The OFloinn:

            Actually, in Aristotelian perspective one can derive “ought” from “is.” It was Kant and the other Moderns who claimed otherwise; but they were likely wrong about that along with everything else.

            • Comment by The Deuce:

              Yup. What is true is that you can’t derive a teleological conclusion from non-teleological premises.

              The Moderns denied that teleology is actually real at all, which combined with the above, implies that you cannot derive moral conclusions (which are inherently teleological) from anything real, or in other words that you can’t derive an ought from an is (it also implies that moral truths are unreal, hence moral relativism).

        • Comment by Sylvie D. Rousseau:

          I agree with you that “Natural Law” is the most accurate term to use. The refusal or avoiding of this expression by moderns is very telling. The problem is not so much with the meaning of “law” (thanks to physics), but “nature” (or “essence”) is one of the worst enemies of the moderns and they try by all means to eliminate it or render it meaningless.

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          It is a perfectly clear example, but our resident materialist does not believe triangles exist except as matter, either made of beams of wood or made of molecules of chalk on a chalkboard, or made (somehow) by little triangular brain cells lining up inside motion picture projections of a the brain to show to the little homunculi of ourselves who live in, or, rather, carry out material processes in, our brains. The triangle pictures we make in our imaginations are real things made of matter that we perceive by means of a hitherto undiscovered sense impression allowing us to detect brain atom motions, and hence the triangle pictures we make in our imaginations are only approximates of mathematically perfect triangles, which do not and cannot exist, because when we think about them, we only think we are thinking about them, we actually are thinking about something else.

          How an approximation can approximate a nonexistent and unimaginable perfect standard is a mystery of the materialist faith. Likewise, the objects of thought do not exist, only the brain atoms which embody the thoughts exist. We only imagine we are thinking, but we deceive ourselves. Yet how the imaginations can exist not as objects of thought but as material carriers of thought is another mystery of the faith. For that matter, so is the question of how a machine made of matter can be said in any meaningful sense to deceive itself or make a mistake.

          The mind is a material machine, so when we picture ourselves as thinking, the picture formed is both false and is not a picture but is itself a material in the machine; so picturing pictures as pictures is false: as if only the motion picture film projector existed, but not the moving images which make the movie.

          If I have misstated or exaggerated any aspect of Dr Andreassen’s dogmas of faith, I am sure he will correct me.

          • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

            Indeed I will. To say that a thought consists of smaller parts, which are not themselves thoughts, is not the same as asserting that the thought does not exist, or that it is not thought-ful. I say the first thing, and you insist on saying that I said the second thing, and so we go around in circles. Which exist as thoughts, but not as the sort of Platonic object, independent of anyone’s thinking, that Zach seems to believe in.

            • Comment by John C Wright:

              This is because I make a distinction between brain electrons, which you insist on calling thoughts, and the objects of thought, which I insist on calling thoughts.

              Frankly, I have exhausted my imagination trying to come up with some honest reason why you cannot see the distinction. Whether or not you agree the distinction is valid, you seem to just turn into an idiot when it comes time to comprehending it.

              An analogy: suppose I take my quill on Monday and write “elephants have trunks” on the back of an envelope. On Tuesday I throw the envelope in to the hearth fire.

              The sentence has certain physical properties, such as the weight and position of the ink molecules. The physical properties also have duration: from Monday to Tuesday.

              The sentence also has certain formal properties. For example, it is literal rather than figurative, prose rather than rhyme, grammatically in the third person, present tense, nominative rather than imperative, and so on. It has six vowels of which three are the letter “e”. These formal properties have no duration, no weight, no mass, occupy neither space nor time.

              The sentence also has certain logical properties. It is a universal positive statement, “All S is P.”

              Also, the sentence has final properties. It is a true statement, because elephants actually do have trunks. It was not written with a deceptive intent. The sentence was meant for a certain purpose, to convey a certain meaning.

              The sentence also has a meaning, or mental or symbolic properties. It is “about” elephants. Elephants are the subject matter of the sentence.

              It would be madness for any man to assert that Elephants exist only in that sentence, and only for the length of time until I burned the envelope, and that the elephants have the same material properties as the ink marks used to write about them.

              Yet this is the claim you make for brain atoms. You say that the physical properties of the sentences written in brain atoms are the same as the physical properties of the objects those brain sentences are about. You use the word “thought” instead of the word “sentences”.

              And when the sentence is about a non physical object, like justice or triangles, instead of about elephants, you say that these elephants do not exist and have no properties, because they are one and the same as the sentences in our brain we use to represent them to ourselves.

              And when I ask you about the formal and final causes of a sentence, you play the fool and change the subject. You just pretend I had not said anything.

              So, no, my objection is not that sentences are made of parts. That is stupid. The physical elements of the sentence are made of physical parts: ink molecules made of carbon atoms made of electrons and such. The formal elements are made of formal parts, words made of syllables made of letters. The logical elements are made of logical parts: “elephants have trunks” implies “S is P” which implies “A is A.” And so on.

              My objection is that you are like a witch doctor, who cannot make the distinction between a wax doll, a symbol, and the real man the symbol represents.

              You cannot tell the difference between an elephant and an envelope.

              • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

                You say that the physical properties of the sentences written in brain atoms are the same as the physical properties of the objects those brain sentences are about.

                I did not say that. I said that the physical properties of the sentences written in brain atoms are the constituent parts of the thought that the sentence expresses. Consequently they are the physical properties of the thought.

                And when the sentence is about a non physical object, like justice or triangles, instead of about elephants, you say that these elephants do not exist and have no properties, because they are one and the same as the sentences in our brain we use to represent them to ourselves.

                The last part of your sentence is correct: Justice and triangles are both thoughts, existing in our minds and not otherwise. The first part is incorrect: There is no dichotomy between “exists in our minds” and “exists”; and all things that exist have properties.

                Please observe: There is a difference between saying “Platonic ideals do not exist, therefore the idea of a triangle doesn’t refer to an object outside the mind”, and saying “The idea of the triangle doesn’t exist”. I keep saying the first, and you take me to be saying the second.

    • Comment by Patrick:

      “Next, there are only two major goals — life and death. Everything else falls into one of those two categories.”

      In what sense is death a goal?

    • Comment by The OFloinn:

      Natural law, therefore, while well defined, is a figment of the imagination.

      Once again, not understanding the concept of natural law.

      • Comment by wrf3:

        Fine. Then point to it. I can see the Pomeranian by my chair, and the chair, and we’ve found the Higgs Boson. I know how to prove that the sum of the angles of a triangle equals 180 degrees. I have also seen the proofs that the sum of the angles of a triangle can be less than 180 degrees (for hyperbolic geometry) and greater than 180 degrees (for elliptical geometry). Don’t know which ones really exist outside of our imaginations but I haven’t kept up on the latest of the curvature of space. I’ve watched C-beams glitter off the Tannhäuser gate… Point to this natural law that you claim exists that lays claim to what all humans ought to do. Do you have to build a multi-billion dollar piece of equipment to demonstrate it, like Higgs, or a space telescope to see to the edge of our light cone? Or does it exist only in your mind?

        • Comment by Patrick:

          “Do you have to build a multi-billion dollar piece of equipment to demonstrate it, like Higgs, or a space telescope to see to the edge of our light cone? Or does it exist only in your mind?”

          Why do you talk derisively of building a fancy machine to see what, when we say ‘natural law’, we mean “the blindingly obvious” – things which you only need reason and introspection to discover?

          • Comment by wrf3:

            Because I want you to show me the reason and the introspection. If it’s knowable by reason and introspection, two different people ought to be able to come to the same conclusions about what constitutes moral behavior. I assume you’ve seen the tension between Wright and Andreassen on what comprises moral sexual behavior. Why is Dr. A. not convinced of John’s position, or vice versa?

            Now, I understand that people aren’t rational. It’s really interesting to watch a group of students being introduced to game theory and asked to play a simple game. Since they haven’t analyzed it they don’t know the most beneficial choice to make. And they don’t. Then the game is analyzed and they learn what to do. The game is played again, but some of them still don’t play optimally. But they all agree on what the right play is. If natural law is “blindingly obvious” then either Wright or Andreasen is blind or stupid. Because it’s one thing to say “Yes, that it what I should do; I just don’t want to do it” and quite something else to say, “your proof is wrong.”

            As a point of fact, I don’t think either one of them blind or stupid. So I think that the claim of “blindingly obvious” is wrong. I think there’s a lot of sloppy thinking on both sides. I have my own particular form of sloppy thinking. I want to see how the various positions hold up under scrutiny.

            • Comment by John C Wright:

              “Why is Dr. A. not convinced of John’s position, or vice versa?”

              Because circuit AZBB156646515 in Dr Andreassen’s brain has malfunctioned, and sends a stimulant when it should send a suppressant, and this reverses the electron flow carrying small particles holding moral code bits in colloidal suspension to the conscience centers of the Broca Area in his left cortex. This causes him to adopt his philosophy based on what flatters his desires and appetites rather than adapt himself to a philosophy based on its truth value, to govern him. You see, the act of fornication created a disturbance in the organism on a cellular and “muscle-memory” level, so that he now must spend his energy and effort in justifying and explaining away his conscience rather than heeding it.

              This may seem like an ad hominem argument, but in the world of a materialist, there is no matter to discuss aside from the matter in our brains, and so all arguments are ad hominem because they are all neurological reports of the electron positions accompanying thoughts, not thought itself.

              Christians express the same concept more easily: the fallen nature of man darkens the intellect.

              As for the rest, your argument is ill-formed. There are matter on which reasonable men can differ. A difference of outlook, different axioms, different weight given to different evidence, makes it so that even conscientious and fairminded men might not agree. We call these matters of judgment.

              The number of matters on which there is no reasonable disagreement is vanishingly small: certain conclusions of geometry and the physical sciences perhaps, or certain very basic moral intuitions without which one cannot be human.

              The mere fact that there are matters where reasonable men can differ is not an argument in favor of subjectivism, nor an argument against Natural Law.

              It would be like arguing that since Hoyle favored the Steady State Theory and Lemaitre favored the Big Bang, that the science of astronomy was all arbitrary opinion.

              • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

                This may seem like an ad hominem argument, but in the world of a materialist, there is no matter to discuss aside from the matter in our brains.

                To claim that an idea is made of smaller parts, which are not themselves ideas, is not to deny that it is an idea. Your argument is the fallacy of composition. A brick is not a wall, but a wall can be made of bricks. An atom is not an idea, but an idea can be made of atoms. You have no difficulty with judging the wall by its ability to block things, not by the ability of the individual bricks. But when it comes to ideas, you insist that either they have no non-idea parts, or they must be judged by the idea-ness of the components. With a wall you would see the error; why do you not see it with ideas?

                You seem to think I am making a normative claim, “Ideas are made of atoms, therefore they are not really ideas”. In fact I am making a purely descriptive claim, “Ideas are made of atoms”, full stop. In a sense the whole materialism debate is a sideshow, a digression: The components of ideas may be an interesting subject in itself, but it has no bearing on the value of ideas.

                • Comment by John C Wright:

                  No, I am saying you are blinded by pride, so that when I say that while a wall can be made of bricks, a raincloud cannot be made of bricks but only be made of raindrops, you change the subject and pretend I had not spoken. One cannot put together material atoms, which have extension and duration and location, and create from them thoughts, which have neither extension nor duration nor location. Your argument is a fallacy of mistaking thoughts (the elephant I draw on an envelope) for the medium (the envelop on which I draw the elephant). If I draw an elephant and give him big ears and call him Dumbo, the properties which Dumbo has are not the properties the envelope has.

                  Your counter argument is that brain atoms have both intellectual and physical properties, and so the analogy does not apply. But even without the analogy, the subject matter about which brain atoms are allegedly thinking are not the same as the physical properties of the brain atoms themselves.

                  The phrase, “Ideas are made up of atoms” is a nonsense statement, like saying Wednesday is made up, not of 24 hours, but of 24 types of cheese or 24 logical errors or 24 moral imperatives or 24 stanza. It is so obviously a nonsense statement that I am in awe of your ability to say it with a straight face.

                  That you would put the word “value” in the same sentence leaves me breathless at your zenlike ability to utter purely illogical Lewis Carroll rumfuddle and paradox without any self awareness. Does not the word “value” imply an evaluation and at least two entities, a thing valued and an evaluator? Which, in turn, implies a perceiver and a thing perceived? It the relationship between perception and perceived a physical relationship or a representational one, as when we speak of true and false? These are not material magnitudes and cannot be expressed as material magnitudes.

                  Thought are ABOUT something. Matter does not have ABOUT-ness. A brick is not about anything. You can put bricks together to make a wall, but not to make a statement. Statements are made of symbols. Symbols represent something to someone.

                  Unfortunately, in order for you to examine the statement that thoughts are made of bricks and not of symbols, you would have to contemplate your theory of how humans know knowledge, and what the nature of “being” happens to be, that is, epistemology and ontology.

                  Until you are willing or able to venture into these areas, we are at the same impasse you and I have been at for two years. You say thoughts are made of atoms. Fine. Show me. Prove it. Take a group of atoms and make a thought. Make a true thought then make a false thought, and show me which atom’s physical properties make the difference between the two.

                  • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

                    Thought are ABOUT something. Matter does not have ABOUT-ness.

                    Well, here we are at the fundamental point of our disagreement; I say that matter does have about-ness, or at least some matter does.

                    You say thoughts are made of atoms. Fine. Show me. Prove it. Take a group of atoms and make a thought. Make a true thought then make a false thought, and show me which atom’s physical properties make the difference between the two.

                    I must admit that I cannot do so just at the moment; but I have reasons for thinking it can be done. Perhaps you are willing to grant me, or rather the neuroscientists, some decades to work on it?

                    I’d also like to define somewhat more clearly the terms of your challenge. For example, would you accept a machine that changes someone’s mind on some subject or other? Would you accept a brain not created by the usual biological method, but instead by carefully placing one atom after another, and then implanted in a human body and controlling it as brains do? For additional credit, I would attempt to make two such brains, one of which is a Republican and one a Democrat.

              • Comment by Patrick:

                I think you’re being unfair to Dr. A here; his metaphysics may not be ironclad, but I think his materialism is less awful on the point of natural law than you’re making it out to be – though it’s clearly scandalized wrf3, for instance.

                • Comment by wrf3:

                  Huh? I happen to agree with Dr. Andreassen that thought is matter in motion in certain patterns. He’s right on this and John is wrong. On the other hand, concerning the existence of God and the resurrection of Christ, John is right and Dr. A. is wrong.

                  Concerning the nature and computation of natural law, I have disagreements with both of them.

                • Comment by John C Wright:

                  I often suffer the temptation to be unfair to Dr Andreassen. It is a bad habit I am trying to fight. I accept your correction with humility, and, with apologies to him and to you, I retract the comment.

                  He has risen in my esteem compared to the absurdity of wrf3, who believes all spirit is material patterns, yet believes in Christ. Oy, vey. At least the good doctor is trying to be logically consistent in the conclusions from his axioms.

                  • Comment by wrf3:

                    Sigh. John, you keep attributing to me that which I have never said, to wit:

                    wrf3, who believes all spirit is material patterns

                    I don’t believe all spirit is material patterns. I believe human thought is material patterns. You know how it goes, don’t you? Word become flesh? Blast that pesky Bible with its odd notions.

                  • Comment by The Deuce:

                    I’m pretty sure at this point that wrf3’s Christianity is a bit of a ruse he’s putting on, either because he thinks Christianity is a “useful fiction” or “narrative” in general or (more likely) because he thinks that pretending to believe it is useful for confounding believers during argument in particular.

                    Note that he thinks that universals like triangles are merely pieces of material in our brains, and not actual universals at all. He even thinks that the laws of logic (such as the law of non-contradiction) are merely bits of brain matter, relative to those of us who believe in them and our “axioms”, and not actual, mind-independent facts that govern reality. The only reasonable conclusion to draw from this is that he puts God in the same boat, as a bit of material inside his brain that he considers “axiomatic”, but which he doesn’t think has real, objective existence.

                    There’s a few dead giveaways, like his sarcastic “Has Jesus heard about that?” in response to his deliberately butchered straw-man account of natural law morality below. Keep in mind that his own stated account of morality is one of will-to-power moral relativism, so it’s not like he’s honestly standing up for divine command theory here, or some other “Bible-based” defense of morality. It’s not a genuine invocation of Jesus Christ, but the rhetoric of an unbeliever dripping with contempt for beliefs he doesn’t share while trying to catch the Christian in a “gotcha”.

                    Note that he’s already demonstrated many, many times that he cares nothing for truth, logical consistency, or intellectual honesty, and that he constantly argues in bad faith, so there’s no reason to put this past him. Furthermore, this sort of thing is par for the course with Post-Modernists, for whom words are nothing more than means of manipulation, and who have no issues with lying since they convince themselves that there is no such thing as objective truth in the first place. And again, recall that he considers the Law Of Non-Contradiction itself to be nothing more than a “useful” axiom to him personally (or to his brain or whatever), rather than a true and binding fact of reality which he must obey in order for his beliefs to have any truth. He certainly wouldn’t be the first PoMo “Christian” crypto-atheist who I’ve seen take precisely the “God is a useful narrative” position I’ve outlined here.

                    I suppose it’s conceivable that he’s really so bad at reasoning, or so intellectually lazy, that he takes the eliminativist position he does with respect to triangles, morality, laws of logic, and the human mind, but somehow still thinks that God is an objectively real, non-physical being who we can know and that Jesus Christ died for our sins and resurrected, and honestly doesn’t see the inconsistency there, but I find it very hard to believe, whereas dishonesty is the simpler explanation, and is in keeping with his behavior.

                    • Comment by wrf3:

                      I’m pretty sure at this point that wrf3′s Christianity is a bit of a ruse he’s putting on, either because he thinks Christianity is a “useful fiction” or “narrative” in general or (more likely) because he thinks that pretending to believe it is useful for confounding believers during argument in particular.

                      So it simply isn’t possible that I believe that the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ exists, that Jesus died as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world, and that he rose bodily three days later? It isn’t possible that I think you’re right as to your history and soteriology, but very much wrong as to your explanations for how the world in general, and morality in particular, works?

                      Note that he thinks that universals like triangles are merely pieces of material in our brains, and not actual universals at all.

                      I haven’t said that at all. Do pay attention. Universals are the result of matter in motion in certain patterns. You can’t logically show that they exist outside of minds unless you assume the existence of God (and, yes, I’m familiar with, e.g. Russell’s defense of Plato. We can discuss where he’s wrong, if you’d like).

                      He even thinks that the laws of logic (such as the law of non-contradiction) are merely bits of brain matter, relative to those of us who believe in them and our “axioms”, and not actual, mind-independent facts that govern reality.

                      The law of non-contradiction, like the laws of physics, are descriptions of a particular view of nature. How do descriptions exist independently of mind?

                      The only reasonable conclusion to draw from this is that he puts God in the same boat, as a bit of material inside his brain that he considers “axiomatic”, but which he doesn’t think has real, objective existence.

                      That’s not a true statement of my position. Our thoughts follow the laws of physics. What we think are “universals” are the result of electrons flowing in our brains. The only way for universals to exist in the Platonic sense is if there is a universal mind. I’m sure all sorts of prizes are yours for the taking if you can prove that’s the case in the way, say, Fermat’s last theorem was proved.

                      There’s a few dead giveaways, like his sarcastic “Has Jesus heard about that?” in response to his deliberately butchered straw-man account of natural law morality below.

                      What did I butcher? Perhaps you didn’t understand the argument. It is a key component of John’s exposition of “natural law” is that it is something all “sane”, “honest” (or other tribal adjective) men know, i.e. it’s a numbers game. It’s why children are typically excepted from the group, since that would show the hollowness of the argument. Children are neural networks in the state of being trained. Now, certainly there are those who say that morality is, in fact, statistical, and the societal ethos is determined by a bell curve. But that isn’t what John really wants to say. He claims that there is a universal morality which determines right and wrong, even if only one person is right and everyone else is wrong. The burden of proof is on him to show this. It isn’t my job to make his case for him. But he has to have me make his case for him (since it’s something all “sane” men know). He can’t point to something outside of either of us that is prescriptive. Since I wouldn’t play his game, he decided that he had no duty to be honest with me. It was at that point that I reminded him that a) I said I would be honest with him, and b) even if he doesn’t have a duty to be honest with me, allegedly because of my actions, he has a duty imposed by Jesus. But that becomes a supernatural reason, and not a natual reason.

                      Keep in mind that his own stated account of morality is one of will-to-power moral relativism, so it’s not like he’s honestly standing up for divine command theory here, or some other “Bible-based” defense of morality.

                      First, your statement of my position isn’t in accordance with what I’ve actually said. Second, this is about natural law. Divine command theory or other Bible-based systems are supernatural, not natural. If you have to resort to the supernatural to explain “natural law”, then the problem is your’s, not mine.

                      It’s not a genuine invocation of Jesus Christ, but the rhetoric of an unbeliever dripping with contempt for beliefs he doesn’t share while trying to catch the Christian in a “gotcha”.

                      How about, “it’s the rhetoric of a believer dripping with contempt for a position based largely on ignorance of logic, physics, computer science, neuroscience, game theory, and evolutionary biology”?

                      I might deal with the rest of Deuce’s screed, later.

                    • Comment by wrf3:

                      I suppose it’s conceivable that he’s really so bad at reasoning, or so intellectually lazy, that he takes the eliminativist position he does with respect to triangles, morality, laws of logic, and the human mind, but somehow still thinks that God is an objectively real, non-physical being who we can know and that Jesus Christ died for our sins and resurrected, and honestly doesn’t see the inconsistency there, but I find it very hard to believe, whereas dishonesty is the simpler explanation, and is in keeping with his behavior.

                      There is no inconsistency. Suppose, purely for the sake of argument, that God doesn’t exist. Then the description of triangles, morality (which is a prescription, which requires description), and so on are mental states, and mental states are electrons moving in certain patterns in the brain. Software engineering shows that this is so: it doesn’t matter whether the concept of checkmate is in the human mind or the silicon circuits of a computer — it’s still the dance of electrons. All software is hardware.

                      Now, the atheist will argue that the connections in the brain that permit electrons to move in certain ways came about by the random combination and recombination of matter under the pressure of natural selection. The theist will say that this is the result of God’s purpose. How do we theists know this? Simple. “The word became flesh”.

                      So my position is consistent with both nature and revealed supernature.

                    • Comment by John C Wright:

                      “and mental states are electrons moving in certain patterns in the brain”

                      And suppose the day called Tuesday was made up of eighteen notes of music and a can of dogfood, rather than made up of hours and minutes.

                      When eliminative materialists utter total nonsense like this, saying that “states” are made of “patterns” I wish they could describe the number and weight and shape of the concepts they are using, because I have no idea to what they refer.

            • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

              If natural law is “blindingly obvious” then either Wright or Andreassen is blind or stupid.

              I suggest that the phrase “blindingly obvious” was rather badly chosen. Things that require “only introspection and reason” to discover are not, therefore, necessarily easy to discover. Consider mathematical theorems: Once the axioms are stated the theorems are implied, and “only reason” (not even introspection!) is required to restate the axioms in the form of the theorem. That does not mean that the proof of Fermat’s Last is a trivial achievement.

              • Comment by wrf3:

                Sure. But that isn’t what the Natural Law crew are claiming, unless John has finally relented and taken option #2:

                John can only retreat to three positions:
                1) there is no natural law. What is claimed to be natural law is just groups of individuals carrying their particular stones up the mountain.
                2) there is a natural law, he just doesn’t know the formula, or
                3) what he calls natural law is actually given by revelation and can’t be found by observing nature. It’s supernatural, not natural. The stones have be carried down from the mountain.

                I will note, however, that John is very close to #2, since it looks like he claimed “reason establishes moral law in a way that’s not good enough.” (my take on what he said).

                • Comment by John C Wright:

                  Your analysis of the positions to which I can retreat is based on a simple and gross misunderstanding of what the phrase Natural Law means. I have defined it and used examples and written a long essay on what makes modern thinkers unable to grasp the concept. I am not talking about a law like Newton’s Third Law of Motion, which can be expressed as a ratio between two or more magnitudes. I am talking about the tacit moral intuitions upon which all sane men rely when they make moral decisions, or debate them.

                  If you want a partial list, you need look no farther than the Appendix ‘Illustrations of the Tao’ to ABOLITION OF MAN by Lewis. http://www.columbia.edu/cu/augustine/arch/lewis/abolition4.htm

                  Dr Andreassen, whether he knows it or not, or whether he admits it or not, relies for the moral authority of his own truncated moral code based on the same principles of the same list as do I, and as does every man. The difference is that he exaggerates certain principles out of their due proportion, such as the principle of liberty, or tolerating others out of charity, in order to eliminate principles of equal or greater authority, such as chastity or temperance.

                  If he and I were ever to agree on any points in a moral argument, not just on the one point of chastity, would you agree that this proves the Natural Law exists? If, for example, we both agree that the unexamined life is not worth living, or we agree that honesty is the best policy, or we agree slavery is wrong, why does this not prove that Natural Law exists? For he and I are not bound by a Positive Law which commands us to agree on these matters. If there were no Natural Law, he and I could not even agree on any points where we do agree.

                  How can you believe in God and not believe in objective moral law? If God in His infinite wisdom condemns something as evil, is it not simply evil, whether or not Sauron or Loki or stubborn and sullen crooks think it is evil? Or does God err?

                  • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

                    Dr Andreassen, whether he knows it or not, or whether he admits it or not, relies for the moral authority of his own truncated moral code based on the same principles of the same list as do I, and as does every man.

                    I agree with you on this point. Because I am an inveterate nitpicker I will point out that some men are psychopaths or otherwise diseased, and therefore do not have the same moral intuitions; but this is easily fixed by amending “every man” to “every sane man”.

                    The difference is that he exaggerates certain principles out of their due proportion, such as the principle of liberty, or tolerating others out of charity, in order to eliminate principles of equal or greater authority, such as chastity or temperance.

                    Conversely, it seems to me that you are taking a means, chastity, and promoting it to an end in itself. Chastity was useful in the past as a way of avoiding various harms; now we have other means to the same end. If I may take an analogy from geometry, we have a certain proposition which it seems to me can be proved from ones that are already accepted; I therefore hold that it should be classified as a theorem, not as part of the axiomatic foundation of geometry. You, on the other hand, believe that the proofs are flawed, and the the proposition must be either accepted or rejected as an axiom, independent of other propositions. You are no doubt aware that geometry did have such a controversy for a long time, touching the Fifth Axiom; it was eventually shown that this proposition is in fact independent, and one must accept either Euclid’s version or one of its negations as an axiom.

            • Comment by Patrick:

              “Now, I understand that people aren’t rational.”

              You say ‘understand’, but I think you mean “assume.”

              How would you go about rationally proving that people aren’t rational – yourself being people?

              Hint: you have a yardstick…

              • Comment by wrf3:

                How would you go about rationally proving that people aren’t rational – yourself being people?

                By showing that they don’t act in a manner consistent with how they say they should act. As one of many examples, watch the first few lectures of “Introduction to Game Theory” from Yale University on iTunes.

                Hint: you have a yardstick…

                Except I’m not making the claim that it’s the universal yardstick of Natural Law. The yardstick is individual. The point of irrationality is made as long as the subject of the experiment agrees as to what they should do and then doesn’t do it.

                • Comment by Tom Simon:

                  Except I’m not making the claim that it’s the universal yardstick of Natural Law. The yardstick is individual.

                  But you are making a universal claim, when you require Mr. Wright to measure his arguments by the same yardstick. You explicitly appeal to him to be honest and fair-minded, when honesty and fair-mindedness themselves are part and parcel of the Natural Law that you deny exists.

                  It is as though a football player should argue that an opposing man is offside, whilst simultaneously maintaining that the rules of the game do not exist.

            • Comment by The OFloinn:

              If it’s knowable by reason and introspection, two different people ought to be able to come to the same conclusions about what constitutes moral behavior.

              OTOH, since Lagrange on the one hand and Laplace and Poisson on the other came to different conclusions about pressure, even to the point where the self-same data used to test the self-same hypothesis who prove the hypothesis for followers of the one and disprove it for followers of the other…. can we conclude that physics (or physicists) are not rational?
              — Gandersauce

              • Comment by wrf3:

                Physicists aren’t rational because humans aren’t rational.

                Whether physics is rational depends on one’s metaphysics. Certainly, it is our belief that nature is amenable to mathematical description.

                However, again, this begs the question. It isn’t unusual for two physicists to disagree on competing theories. But they both agree that the theories have to correspond to Nature. There’s something to test the theories against — what Nature actually does.

                All I’m asking is that you show me Natural Law. For example, resolve the dispute between Wright and Andreassen about sexual behavior, so that both of them have to agree with your proof.

                • Comment by The OFloinn:

                  Physicists aren’t rational because humans aren’t rational.

                  But then either: a) you have not taken a rational position or b) you are not human.

                  However, again, this begs the question.

                  In what way is it circular reasoning to point out an oxymoron? The contention that humans are not rational simply defies common experience. Unless you have confused the ability to abstract universals from concrete particulars with whether or not two people agree on something.

                  It isn’t unusual for two physicists to disagree on competing theories.

                  No, Laplace and Lagrange disagreed on what pressure meant. Pressure does not exist in nature. It is an abstraction from concrete observation (from L. ab trahere, “to pull out [from something]). This can only be done by rational beings.

                • Comment by John C Wright:

                  All I’m asking is that you show me Natural Law. For example, resolve the dispute between Wright and Andreassen about sexual behavior, so that both of them have to agree with your proof.

                  This is a strikingly odd request. Suppose Mr Flynn did exactly as you ask, and it had the results you puckishly predict, and I became a libertine or Dr Andreassen an advocate of chastity. Why in the world would this change your mind?

                  Suppose that instead of Dr Andreassen as the libertine, we selected the version of me that existed circa 1984, when I graduated from college. I assure you I could have, in those days, defended the sexual revolution with considerably more rigorous logic and rhetorical art than many a libertine who does not know an axiom from his asshole. If one example of a dispute being solved by means of an argument convinces you that the subject matter of the argument exists, why would not another example serve just as well, or countless examples, from full-blown conversion stories, to instances where a man pondered his life and made a small change?

                  Why, again, is the example I keep throwing in your face which you diligently and with admirable energy continue to elude, evade, and hypocritically deny not serve this purpose? You yourself are relying on the axiom of a Natural Law, a moral imperative that is not manmade, when you make the appeal to the honesty of your listeners to heed the logic (such as it is) of your argument.

                  When confronted, after some smirking and dithering and bullshit, you offer the comically lame excuse that you adhere to a moral principle of being logical in thought because it pleases your survival instinct (prevent you from crashing and burning due to self contradiction was your poetical metaphor) and that neither I nor other men had any moral obligation, no imperative to due likewise, unless perhaps we freely so chose. Your sentence is itself offered as proof for the subject it addresses: it is a persuasive writing, and it tacitly calls on all honest men to accept it as true dispute any personal inclinations not to accept it. And yet upon reading, the sentence says that no man is obligated by a moral imperative to honesty in reasoning to be reasonable. You call upon the very moral principle you deny exists to make the argument.

                  Why would the sight of Dr Andreassen convincing me of something convince you of anything? Would you not just say, as you have here, that I allowed myself to become convinced due to my arbitrary willpower? Why would the sight of me convincing the good doctor convince you of anything?

                  Could you not just claim that all that happened in such a case is that Dr Andreassen realized that his chance of “crashing and burning” due to logic failure was lower if he adopted my logically consistent but completely arbitrary and imaginary moral precepts?

                  Why are you implying you have a standard of evidence when your argument implies that no objective moral argument, hence no standards of evidence, can exist? Explain that paradox for me, please.

                  • Comment by The OFloinn:

                    Not only that, but how could the argument be compressed to a blog combox comment. The principle that Reason rules Acts is not easily reduced to practice, given our tendency to confuse rationalization with rationale. It is difficult to provide an argument on a specific point to someone who does not even understand the principle. That’s like convincing a Lagrangian of a hypothesis proven in a Laplacian context.

                  • Comment by wrf3:

                    Why in the world would this change your mind?

                    I recall in eleventh grade that my math teacher gave us some of her college homework for extra credit. I stayed up all night working those ten problems. After class the next day we went over my work. She compared my work to hers and said, “you got the first one right, and the second one, but the third is wrong.” I asked if I could see her paper. I discovered a mistake in what she did and pointed it out. She looked at my paper, then back at her paper, then said, “I made a mistake. You’re right.” Changing minds is what proofs are supposed to do.

                    I assure you I could have, in those days, defended the sexual revolution with considerably more rigorous logic and rhetorical art than many a libertine who does not know an axiom from his asshole.

                    You’re the one making the claim that there is a natural law, discoverable by reason, that says how men ought to behave. Were you convinced of the error of your morality by a natural argument, or by supernatural means?

                    You yourself are relying on the axiom of a Natural Law, a moral imperative that is not manmade, when you make the appeal to the honesty of your listeners to heed the logic (such as it is) of your argument.

                    First, you’re making a category error. The law of non-contradiction is a statement of “is.” By making it a moral imperative, something we ought to follow, you’re bridging the is-ought gap. But you haven’t provided the warrant for doing so. You’ve assumed what you’re trying to prove.

                    Second, that I hold to the law of non-contradiction does not mean that I expect you to follow it. Do what you will. I am not using it as a requirement of what your behavior ought to be.

                    And yet upon reading, the sentence says that no man is obligated by a moral imperative to honesty in reasoning to be reasonable. You call upon the very moral principle you deny exists to make the argument.

                    Really? What was that moral principle that made my personal preference a moral imperative on your part? Where did I bridge the is-ought gap and say “the law of non-contradiction is universally good”? The law of non-contradiction is a pre-requisite to rational communication. It does not mean that you are under any obligation to communicate rationally. Good grief, I’ve had enough conversations with Hindus to know that some of them laugh at the notion of the goodness of the law of non-contradiction.

                    Why would the sight of Dr Andreassen convincing me of something convince you of anything?

                    Because then the argument could be examined, just like my eleventh-grade homework. If it’s an argument from the Natural Law that you say exists, then I would go, “yes, that’s an argument from nature how men ought to behave.”

                    Why are you implying you have a standard of evidence when your argument implies that no objective moral argument, hence no standards of evidence, can exist? Explain that paradox for me, please.

                    It’s funny that the proponent of the existence of natural law, which is allegedly discoverable through reason via the observation of something in nature, is asking me for proof when I’m not the one having made the initial claim. If I had told my math teacher that there was no X, and she demonstrated X, then my argument would be shown to be in error. It’s your claim that natural law exists. Show me. Show Dr. Andreassen. Show Gian.

                    • Comment by John C Wright:

                      Why are you writing responses that do not answer or even address the question?

                      I will ask you again. If seeing me talk Andreassen into something, or seeing him talk me into something, is a sufficient proof to convince you that Natural Law exists, on what ground is your own attempt to talk me into something (in this case, that Natural Law does not exist) not a proof as sufficient?

                      The rest of this is mere nonsense. I have explained what Natural Law is, defined my terms, used examples, said what it is not, and wrote an entire essay explaining the philosophical and psychological reasons why modern men cannot comprehend this simple concept. And then you act as if I said Natural Law were an axiomatic system like Euclidean geometry.

                      I realize that not everyone is a lawyer, and therefore may not be aware of what legal reasoning is like, or what its rules and tropes tend to be, but is it your position that legal reasoning, aside from reasoning about Positive Law does not exist at all?

                      What was that moral principle that made my personal preference a moral imperative on your part?

                      The principle that no effect comes without a cause. From the fact that you asked me an honest question, I thought you wanted an honest answer. But the only way you could neither want nor have a right to an honest answer was if you were not asking an honest question, that is, if you were asking a question with no moral component to it.

                      This logically implies the question was not honestly asked. If you are now telling me the question was not honest, then you have affronted me by wasting my time and typing words you knew to be without meaning.

                      But I would prefer you to say, and to admit, that you are being dishonest, because coming from me the statement would have been an accusation, and not an admission.

                      Consider this: If you are saying you merely have a personal preference that I answer your questions, but that this preference is not binding on me and not a duty I should, as an honest man, fulfill, then you are in the position of a fan who wants me to write a certain type of story I am under no obligation, legal or moral or otherwise, to write.

                      I thought you were trying to make an argument.

                      If you are merely listing your arbitrary psychological states of mind for your own amusement, then you have no right to an honest answer to your questions, and I need not reply, and you have no right to feel slighted if I do not.

                      Why tell me that you happen to have in your head a meaningless desire that I answer a question you asked? If your desire is not mixed with a claim that there is imperative on my part to answer, for me to answer would be likewise arbitrary.

                      It’s funny that the proponent of the existence of natural law, which is allegedly discoverable through reason via the observation of something in nature, is asking me for proof when I’m not the one having made the initial claim.

                      I am not asking you for the proof. I am asking you to notice that your demand for proof has a moral component to it, without which the demand is meaningless, merely a report, without any imperative attached, of a psychological state of mind through which you happen to be passing at the moment.

                      The proof is this:
                      1. You asked for proof
                      2. No one can ask for proof without having a right to ask.
                      3. The right to ask is either natural or manmade. These are the only two alternatives.
                      4. In this specific case, it is not manmade. You and I did not make a contract to agreeing to explicit terms saying that you had a right to ask. (Indeed, such a contract to be honest cannot be made without relying on a previous contact to be honest about the terms of the contract.)
                      5. Therefore the right to ask is a natural right.
                      6. A natural right cannot exist without a natural law.

                      You are attempting to weasel out of the logical implication of the proof now by claiming that statement 1. is false.

                      The weaseling is that you now claim you did not ask for proof, but instead that you merely were reporting, in the same way one might report the raw fact that he happens to prefer pie to cake, that a preference existed in the universe somewhere that just so happened to be presently lodged in your brain that I should answer a question.

                      But you don’t think I have any moral imperative to be honest in my answer, even though the question was asked honestly.

                      Is that correct? Are you sure? I’ll will give you another chance to think about your answer. Think.

                      Because is that is your answer, you are now implying (were I to take your comments seriously) you were not engaged in a rational debate with me, not trying to persuade me honestly of your point of view, and not willing to consider honestly my arguments for my point of view.

                      If so, then this conversation, including this statement, does not exist.

                      And you have the gall to ask me for proof? You have offered clearer proof than I could that the Natural Law exists. Your every word proves it. You simply fail to notice what you yourself are doing, the assumptions on which you are resting.

                    • Comment by John C Wright:

                      First, you’re making a category error. The law of non-contradiction is a statement of “is.” By making it a moral imperative, something we ought to follow, you’re bridging the is-ought gap. But you haven’t provided the warrant for doing so. You’ve assumed what you’re trying to prove. Second, that I hold to the law of non-contradiction does not mean that I expect you to follow it. Do what you will. I am not using it as a requirement of what your behavior ought to be.

                      Your words seem to have no meaning. My argument is that even those who deny the validity and reality of the Natural Law are forced to employ it, because the act of denial presupposes a standard of honest which, since it cannot come from Positive Law, must come from Natural Law.

                      By this argument I am pointing out the contradiction between your behavior (asking for proof) and your philosophy (which logically implies no one has any right to ask for proof, or ask for anything).

                      How is that argument either a category error or a violation of the law of non-contradiction? Are you claiming that the law of non-contradiction does not apply to human action? That if you say one thing and then unsay, you have not contradicted yourself? Or are you talking about another topic unrelated to our discussion?

                      If you are not claiming that I should reason through these arguments with you, then there is no point in your reasoning through these arguments with you. If you are claiming that I should, then you should be honest enough to admit that the word “should” means “should.”

                      Instead you insist that the word “should” means only “do whatever you like when you like.”

                      You are trying to get something for nothing. You want me to abide by a strict standard of rational honesty, for, if not, you would not ask me any questions at all; but when asked on what grounds you make this admittedly legitimate demand, you change the subject, put your fingers in your ears, and whistle. You want me to be honest with you, but you deny that you should be honest with me.

                      For shame, sir.

                    • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

                      Do what you will. I am not using [the law of non-contradiction] as a requirement of what your behavior ought to be.

                      What on Earth is the purpose of arguing with someone who doesn’t accept non-contradiction? If you meet such a being, you should tip your hat and say, “You both agree with and disagree with me, as well as neither agreeing nor disagreeing; have, and do not have, a good and bad day and night.” That statement will be obviously true (and the other guy will assert that it is also false), and what can one possibly add to it? So, just by continuing the conversation, you are either wasting your time in the most ridiculous manner possible, or else you are assuming that Mr Wright does, in fact, accept non-contradiction. It’s not a question of “requiring” anyone to do anything, as though you were a ruler with the moral authority to make such a demand.

                    • Comment by John C Wright:

                      Ah. Here we differ, at least slightly. I hold it to be a moral wrong to speak or think in defiance of the law of non-contradiction. I do not mean I prefer for emotional reasons to be honest and rational: I mean that you and I both, as well as wrf3, actually hold it to be an lapse of ethics when one is dishonest.

                      He has implied that he does not hold such a thing to be a moral lapse but merely an arbitrary personal preference (like preferring blondes to brunettes) to prefer honesty to dishonesty.

                      My assertion is that even if he would prefer he be lied to during a conversation, or have his honest questions not honestly answered, or even if he stoically would take no personal nor emotional offense should that happen, nonetheless his reason would inform him that I do him a moral wrong, I break a small but real moral imperative, if I do not answer honestly or rationally when called upon to do so.

                      Even if he enjoys the lie or is amused by any dishonesty of mine, or is stoically indifferent to it, he cannot NOT recognize that I have wronged him. By asking an honest question, he has a right to an honest answer; and even though he denies this, he nonetheless by his act of asking shows he recognizes it. He is not asking me my arbitrary opinion about blondes and brunettes. He is operating by the unspoken rules which govern rational discussions, making a demand that I produce an warrant for an assertion I have made.

                      I assert this not because I can read his mind, but because he is a rational creature, and there are some truths no rational creatures can honestly hold in honest doubt: and that there is a duty on all rational creatures to be honest is one of them.

                    • Comment by Gian:

                      Mr Wright,
                      I think your (2) is shaky.
                      Something can be a pure assertion without being an argument.

                      I may assert my demand for a proof without having a right.

                      In general, you neglect this element of “Pure Assertion” and thus neglect “animal” part of
                      “rational animal”

            • Comment by The OFloinn:

              I understand that people aren’t rational

              If they weren’t, how could you understand anything?

            • Comment by Patrick:

              “If it’s knowable by reason and introspection, two different people ought to be able to come to the same conclusions about what constitutes moral behavior.”

              John and I and Mary and Sylvia and the Pope and his brother and your parents have come to the same conclusions about what constitutes moral behavior. What’s your deal? You haven’t noticed this?

              • Comment by wrf3:

                Of course I have. But, first, you’ve committed the fallacy of “selective citing.” You haven’t included those who don’t agree with you.

                Second, you haven’t provided reasons that those who don’t agree with you can examine to see if a refutation can be developed. It’s one thing to say, “I (or my group) has proved Fermat’s Last Theorem.” It’s quite other to get other people to agree that you’ve done it.

                Third, and most importantly, it appears that you’re appealing to morality by numbers. I very much doubt you would agree with the principle that “majority rules” when it comes to moral issues. Nor, based on the Catholic reaction to “Obamacare”, would you agree with the principle that “Caesar” rules in matters of morality. So it’s incumbent on you to show the basis on which you judge one moral proposition/system to be better than another moral proposition/system. This you haven’t done.

                • Comment by The OFloinn:

                  Twas yourself that insisted that a Wright-Andreassen agreement on X would demonstrate the existence of natural law. Now you claim that to demonstrate such an agreement on Y would be a fallacy. It is gambits like this that lead some folks to doubt your good faith.
                  Try this: http://www.davidsoderberg.co.uk/
                  where you need to click ARTICLES, then run down the list to Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Law.

                  • Comment by John C Wright:

                    Has anyone but me noticed that, even though I am not an oracle, I have three and four times now predicted wrf3’s reactions, answers, and tactics of rhetoric he would use to answer, or, in this case, not answer questions? I don’t know anything about him, but I know what thoughts lead naturally to other thoughts in the realm of philosophy. Certain ideas tend to be grouped together in families and clans, and have a sort of family resemblance.

                • Comment by Patrick:

                  “Third, and most importantly, it appears that you’re appealing to morality by numbers.”

                  No it doesn’t.

          • Comment by Mary:

            “For as bats’ eyes are to daylight so is our intellectual eye to those truths which are, in their own nature, the most obvious of all.” – Aristotle

            “Blindingly” is the exactly right word. The truths, particularly the moral ones, blind us by making it manifestly clear that we are heading down the wrong road.

        • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

          If it exists in someone’s mind, what is the sense in which it does not exist? There seems to be a contradiction somewhere in there.

          I note in passing that I can likely infuriate both sides by making the above observation, and then adding that, if you were sufficiently well-versed in neuroscience, you could indeed build a machine to observe the natural law by looking at human brains.

          • Comment by wrf3:

            If it exists in someone’s mind, what is the sense in which it does not exist? There seems to be a contradiction somewhere in there.

            None intended. “Existence only within minds” vs. “exists outside of minds.”

            … you could indeed build a machine to observe the natural law by looking at human brains.

            You would only be observing what minds do — which is the flow of electrons through neurons — not what they should do. Natural Law deals with “ought”, not “is”.

            • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

              Yes, but one of the things that minds do is judging what they ought to do. And since there is a common core of judgements that all humans do in fact arrive at (in the same sense that all humans have five fingers: The exceptions needn’t concern us, except insofar as we need to defend ourselves against them) then we may as well call that core objective morality, or if you prefer, natural law. Thus, if you were sufficiently skilled, you could observe natural law by seeing what the brains did. That is, you would see a brain making an ought-judgement, perhaps “I ought to (or ought not to) give money to this cause for such-and-such reasons”. And if that judgement did in fact reflect the natural law, you would quite involuntarily agree with it. That’s the objective morality: The set of ought-statements with which no human is, in a sufficiently long run, able to disagree, whether they like it or not.

              Thus natural law is an is-statement about your mind, or about all human minds; and at the same time it is an ought-statement about what humans should do. This is what bridges the is-ought dichotomy: That there exists a statement which is both is and ought.

              • Comment by wrf3:

                I don’t need a multi-million dollar device to see that you and John come to vastly different answers about certain issues of sexual morality. While I can’t see the exact paths the electrons take through your neurons, nevertheless it’s clear that both of you do not agree. Which one of you, therefore, “reflect(s) the natural law”? By your argument, one of you should admit to being wrong. Or, a third party ought to be able to judge between you and all three of you would be forced, by reason alone, to agree.

                But that’s not the case. So there’s something wrong with your argument.

                That there exists a statement which is both is and ought.

                It’s called a goal.

                • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

                  By your argument, one of you should admit to being wrong.

                  Indeed so, but you’ll note that I said nothing about the time required. I remain confident that eventually one of us will convince the other. People do change their minds, you know, even on moral issues. It’s true that it happens more rarely than it should, just as in basically every subject that humans can dispute. Nonetheless, it does happen that people come across an argument that they haven’t seen before, or haven’t understood; or some new piece of factual evidence about consequences; or they have a sudden insight about their axioms. And then they change their minds.

                  I sometimes refer to objective morality as the thousand-year code: It is the set of decisions you would make if you had a thousand years to think about every possible ramification of your actions, including looking at pocket universes where you tweak the actions slightly and see what happens. Asserting the existence, consistency, and universality of such a code does not require me to assert that any particular moral argument will be resolved in the scope of any particular combox conversation.

            • Comment by hrefn:

              Quantum mechanics has a lot to say about the observation of electrons. To the extent our thoughts are tied to the movement of electrons, you could not observe a thought without changing it. Dr. Andreassen is ambitious, but there are theoretical limits to what we can observe.
              Newtonian mechanics does not leave much room for the soul, but unquantifiable numbers of angels could dance on the head of a quark.

              • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

                If the soul consists merely of quantum randomness, what the devil is it good for? A machine that uses cosmic-ray impacts to “decide” whether to go left or right is not free-willed in any sensible use of the phrase. Between randomness and lawfulness there is no middle ground.

                All that aside, as a matter of mere empirie, the brain is too large-scale to be affected by single electrons. Currents of microAmperes involve the movement of billions of electrons; they can be treated classically without loss of precision.

                • Comment by hrefn:

                  Ah, but I was speaking of a thought. Science is a long way from looking at brain tissue, neurons, axons, electron flows, MRI scans, etc. and tying these observations to moral decisions presumably made in the brain. You asserted that this will one day be possible. I am skeptical because I believe we will bump up against the limits of things too small to be observed, or observed without changing them.
                  Also, I did not say the soul consists of quantum randomness.
                  I am not sure any occurrence is random. I merely observed that Newtonian mechanics does not apply to very tiny things.
                  Electrons are not billiard balls, they are far weirder than that, as you well know. I think it was easier to be a materialist in the 18th century than it is today. I mean no disrespect.

                  • Comment by The OFloinn:

                    The soul is the substantial form of a living body. That’s all. In Latin, the term was anima, which simply means “alive, animate.” Since whether a being is alive or not is fairly provable, souls are empirical fact. Nothing in either Newtonian or quantum mechanics lays a glove on this.
                    It is the animate analog to the inanimate form, which is purely shape-related. A basketball is rubber in the form of a sphere, and no one natters on about “the sphere-rubber problem.”
                    One element of the rational soul is the volition, or intellective appetite, a desire for (against) the products of the intellect; i.e., concepts. Just as in the sensitive appetites it is impossible to desire something which you have not sensed (or remembered sensing), it is impossible for the will to desire something which you have not conceived. The intellect is therefore prior to the will, leading to the natural law principle that “reason rules acts.”
                    Since very little is ever known completely, the will is not determined to this or that, and therefore had “play” or “degrees of freedom.” Nothing in Newton is to the contrary. Nothing in quantum mechanics is to the support.
                    Typically, to undermine classical proofs one must first elaborate them with extraneous assumptions and details, all of them originating in the original Cartesian errors.

  3. Comment by Joseph M (was Ishmael Alighieri):

    Well, there’s a lot going on in that post. Two comments:

    I instantly fell in love with the Disney cartoon ‘Mulan’ because her father was an honorable, descent, loving, strong man – about the only dad in the Disney universe that isn’t absent, comic relief, or evil. Same goes for ‘The Incredibles’, with the added bonus that the mother is both a total hero and a total mom – cool. There is some comfort to be taken in the popularity of both these movies.

    Second, much of what you wrote took me back to ‘the Metaphysical Club’, the rare book I immediately reread upon finishing, because there is way too much good stuff in it to catch in one reading for me. Key point for the current topic: Menand’s tracing of Oliver Wendall Holmes’s famous ‘the Law means what judges say it means’ dictum to his (OWH’s) horrible experiences in the Civil War – a classically Protestant reaction. (is Doc Rampage still around? He’ll hate that point, but it’s true: once you develop a mindset where, in the normal course of things, luminous enlightenment directly informs one’s understanding and conscience and morality, and most definitely not the hoary teachings of some musty old church full of despicable characters (who, BTW, are pretty much the last significant defenders standing for Natural Law), then you’re properly set up for the crushing disappointment that comes from a war where both sides’ claims of the moral high ground cannot be resolved within that mindset – claims of personal enlightenment are cheap.)

    So, since Holmes can’t go back to his Unitarian roots (let alone go back to Rome and the Scholastics, the heirs of Aristotle) to discover some firm basis for judgement, he disavows *any* objective standard. We’re all making ‘progress’ towards nothing via the whims of the judiciary – we just have to trust them in their new role as lawgivers.

    Here is the echo of Hegel, who himself brings to a point the thrust of Kant, Descartes and back at least to Luther: reason is for the little people. *Real* philosophers do ‘hard thinking’ that results in True Understanding that is unavailable to, and unassailable by, reason. That you’d attempt to use logic is, in itself, sufficient proof that You Don’t Get It – for Hegel, that you’re unenlightened; for Marx, that you’re a tool of the oppressors; for Freud, that you lack insight and are in the grips of neuroses, complexes and maybe psychoses. And so on – anyone can play this game, and many do.

    Yet few among them hire a random person to fix their plumbing, car or cardiovascular system – instead, they hire a plumber, mechanic or heart doctor. In fact, they try to hire a *good* plumber, mechanic or heart doctor, not an enlightened or insightful one. But I guess those are the little people for whom logic and reason are still useful.

    As you say, Natural Law is simply the name of that thing to which we appeal when we want to say something is fair or unfair or good or bad, and not just subjectively, but absolutely. In a world freed from absolutes, whatever the strongest man wants to do is what is right. The struggle is to become the strongest man.

  4. Comment by Sylvie D. Rousseau:

    Bravo! Good food for thought.

    Just a little comment on a typo and choice of words.
    You wrote:
    “A populous of citizens animated by a sense of decency and shame…” and, at the end of the following paragraph: “…populations whose poetic imaginations are utterly corrupt.”

    I assume “populous” should read “populace”, but I think “population” would fit better in this occurrence, while “populace” (low-class, uneducated or ill-educated people) would be at the right place in this sentence: “…a populace whose poetic imagination is utterly corrupt.”

  5. Comment by hrefn:

    First, a bit of housekeeping. “Alters” of the Gods jars the eye, and is false to the spirit of Macaulay. Please repair, for the sake of this humble reader. Lest we go on to hymns about the alter, alter boys, alter girls, gadzooks!

  6. Comment by hrefn:

    If there is no objective morality, all moral systems are subjective and equally arbitrary matters of taste. The fireman rushing into the burning building, the Fascist jailer, the saint, the sadist, all matters of taste. And therefore, not subject of rational argument. De gustibus non est disputandum.

  7. Comment by rustymason:

    Natural law brings responsibilities. Liberalism is the human desire to escape responsibility. It is disobedience to the order and maker of the universe. It was the first sin. Perhaps it is back of all sin.

    • Comment by hrefn:

      So we see why the idea of the existence of Natural Law is so stoutly resisted. Once one agrees there is a real and objective difference between nuns and Nazis, terrifying consequences ensue. Natural Law (or objective morality) must be admitted. Now it becomes personal. How do my own actions accord with the Natural Law? It is not always clear, because part of me does not want to know. The Natural Law makes demands. As Rustymason says, it brings responsibilities. Perhaps it demands I change my conduct. Can I claim ignorance? St. Paul argues I cannot claim complete ignorance.
      Rom 2:14 For when the Gentiles, who have not the law, do by nature those things that are of the law; these, having not the law, are a law to themselves.
      2:15. Who shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness to them.
      My line of thought does not demand that Paul’s law is exactly the same as the Natural Law, just that he asserted that humans are cognizant of some law which the untutored obey by nature, is written in their hearts, and to which their conscience bears witness.

  8. Comment by Nostreculsus:

    Can someone please describe to me, even the vaguest and most general terms, the application of Natural Law in operational terms? No, I am not demanding that someone produce “a multi-billion dollar piece of equipment” that detects Natural Law, just a plain explanation of how one goes about determining what is lawful under Natural Law.

    If this were asked this about “Positive Law”, or man-made law, someone would surely answer that lawyers have shelves of bound volumes of legal statutes and court precedents in their offices. The lawyers look up the relevant ordinances, interpret the plain sense of these words and give me their best judgment as to whether the action contemplated is legal or not. This surely covers most cases, although there may still be a few borderline or debatable situations.

    Now what is the procedure by which we apply Natural Law? A Mr Abraham consults me. He has been unable to conceive a child with his wife Sarah, who is now past the age of conception. The perpetuation of his tribe and clan is an important responsibility to Abraham. His wife, Sarah, has therefore proposed that Abraham take her Egyptian servant, Hagar, as a concubine, in order to perpetuate his lineage.

    How does one apply Natural Law to advise Abraham? What is the process?

    I might tell Abraham that he is unlikely to be prosecuted under Positive Law, but he would appear to be a bigamist. I should warn that once Hagar bears a son (Ishmael), she is likely to scorn Sarah and attempt to supplant Sarah. A Christian Doctor of the Church, Augustine of Hippo, declares his actions blameless, in view of Abraham’s sober purpose. Abraham’s actions are generally permitted under Muslim law and generally condemned as excessive under Buddhist scripture, but Abraham and his tribe are Jewish (or will be, once he makes his covenant).

    These questions do not only apply to antiquity. There are infertile couples today. But now there is a broader range of options available, from in-vitro fertilization to the implantation of the fetus into the womb of surrogate mother, Hagar. Soon, technology may create more options – cloning of eggs, artificial wombs. So, we don’t just need a ruling in Abraham’s case. To apply Natural Law to these, as yet unimagined cases, we need something like a flow diagram or an algorithm.

    • Comment by Sylvie D. Rousseau:

      Operational Natural Law: the appendix of C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man is a good overview and includes the Decalogue. Positive laws were and are reasonable inasmuch as they follow or do not contradict the spirit of these primeval laws.
      http://www.columbia.edu/cu/augustine/arch/lewis/abolition1.htm

      Abraham did not go against positive law (polygamy was lawful then and there and the servant was his as well as his wife), but God’s intervention hinted strongly that begetting children outside marriage was not exactly in compliance with Natural Law.

      Natural Law is based on Eternal Law, otherwise it is arbitrary and without any standard. The Greek already knew that. How do we know for sure if we are following Natural Law? If we know for sure what Eternal Law is — that is, from God’s Revelation informing our conscience, so that our will can be formed to it.

    • Comment by momofthree:

      Yes! This really what I am getting at. Can anyone give us the step by step logic how, according to Natural Law, one can clearly determine that Polygyny violates it in all cases.

      I understand there is an absolute morality.

      • Comment by Sylvie D. Rousseau:

        In fact, from what we read in Catholic Encyclopedia articles on “Natural Law” and “Marriage,” polygyny is NOT condemned as intrinsically wrong and, accordingly, is deemed acceptable to positive customary laws in less civilized societies in certain circumstances. I conclude that just men of old like Abraham and Jacob, David and Salomon, cannot be charged with doing evil by the sole fact that they were polygamous.

        However, the divine pedagogy points to the moral superiority of monogamous AND faithful, exclusive marriage from the time of Abraham. Also, in good logic, monogamy is more in the line of Natural Law, because polygamy, while not being intrinsically evil, does bring about many evils like unjust favor toward some partners, injustice toward others as well as unhealthy competition and other perverse effects that would not take place in healthy monogamous marriage. The case of Salomon, who began as a saint and finished in debauch and idolatry, is an exemplar.

        Contraception and assisted procreation are something else entirely. They are contrary to Natural Law, thus wrong and unjustifiable in any case. There is no such thing as a right to beget children. It is a duty and a responsibility for fertile married couples, and a blessing, not a right.

        • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

          Contraception and assisted procreation are something else entirely. They are contrary to Natural Law, thus wrong and unjustifiable in any case.

          How do you know this?

          • Comment by Tom Simon:

            Why do you pick at one thread in a garment that was woven all in one piece? She knows it by the same reasoning and the same evidence that supports the rest of her argument. The (rather obvious) fact that you ardently want the morality of contraception to be a matter utterly separate from the morality of marriage merely shows, yet again, your adeptness in failing to draw logical conclusions when they would disagree with your desires.

          • Comment by Sylvie D. Rousseau:

            Natural Law applies to any act from a free agent endowed with a nature and a conscience. Contraception and assisted procreation are wrong on both counts of form and matter of the act.

            1. Formal morality: contraceptive acts go against the main purpose of sexuality, which is procreation. Assisted procreation goes against the second most important purpose of sexuality, which is union, and this union demands intimacy, which is at least partly lacking or completely absent from assisted procreation techniques.

            2. Material morality: the means used to perform the act are in themselves morally wrong and often have undesired effects. Contraceptives are not only averse to both purposes of sexuality (if somewhat unconsciously in the case of union), but chemicals, sterilization or mechanical devices cause harm to the users or to the newly conceived life. The means used in assisted procreation techniques are precisely what hinders or prevents the sexual union. As in contraception, the chemicals and procedures used might be harmful for users (women, generally), and manipulation of embryos is definitely often fatal to the newly conceived life, which is ridiculously contradictory to the end pursued.

            • Comment by Patrick:

              Does nobody else think this is a good argument?

              • Comment by Sylvie D. Rousseau:

                Thanks, Patrick.
                The merit goes to others, though:
                Philosophical frame: J. Maritain, Preface to Moral Philosophy (also published under the title: An Introduction to Basic Problems of Moral Philosophy)
                Moral theology: Humanae Vitae (Paul VI), Evangelium Vitae (John Paul II), Donum Vitae (Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith)

            • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

              Thank you; that is very clearly put.

              I disagree that “going against the purpose of the act” (primary or secondary) is a compelling argument. The “purposes” referred to are those of evolution, which of course is not in fact a conscious being with actual purposes; they have no moral weight. (The purposes of a creating god are a different matter, but that of course requires such a being to exist.) When we say that a human does something for a purpose, that is exact language, and we may use that purpose in moral judgements. But when we say that evolution has a purpose, that is metaphor, like saying that Deep Blue “judges” the available moves and “chooses” the best one because its evaluation algorithm returns a higher number. Since no consciousness is involved there isn’t a real purpose anywhere in the process, even though it is often convenient to speak as though there were.

              As for the harms, we appear to have a factual disagreement: I believe they are much smaller than the benefits.

              • Comment by Sylvie D. Rousseau:

                Thanks for the compliment. It would be better still if I was not translating from French and from memory. “Purpose” is not a bad word but the best one in this case is “end,” which resorts directly to final causality. Please refer to mhssu’s post on nature and final causality. It is a remarkable Aristotelico-Thomist argument.

                As for the factual assessment of the harm done, it is not smaller than the benefits, particularly in assisted procreation — and I am not taking into account the fact that the new life is endowed with an immortal soul from the moment the gametes join, which equates its elimination to murder, often first degree murder in the case of abortion and willful destruction of embryos.

              • Comment by The OFloinn:

                The use of the term “purpose” must be understood as “end” or “towardness.” All things in nature have a finality toward which they tend by their nature. “Evolution” (to the extent that it is a thing) tends toward the origin of species, to quote a once-popular book title on the subject. Ponderable matter tends toward a point of minimum gravitational potential. Tiger cubs tend toward mature tigers, and not toward tiger lillies. And so on.
                There are three sorts of finality:
                1. Termination: A state when the change ceases. Fingers grow, but not indefinitely long. Telemeres divide, but not forever. Chemical reactions close in on equilibrium. Local motion comes to rest. (A note: Aristotle regarded cyclical behavior as a ‘rest’ state, which is why ‘equilibrium’ is a better term for this than ‘rest.’)
                2. Perfection: A a state when any further change would make it less than what it is. A tiger cub matures to the point where it cannot be any more tigerish. Anything short of this state is a deficiency, contrasting perfect with defect. This is the sort of finality proper to moral reasoning.
                3. Purpose: An intentional state. Tigers hunt in order to find prey. Birds gather twigs in order to build a nest. Humans speak in order to communicate the thoughts in their mind. (Which is why lying is a defectus. It is speaking contrary to what is in your mind.)

    • Comment by hrefn:

      Nonchristians may find the following discussion unsatisfactory, as it proceeds from assumptions they might not grant.
      Imperfect understanding of what the Natural Law is, in any particular circumstance, does seem very problematic. I suspect knowledge of it is innate, and if we did not suffer from a fallen nature our knowledge of it would be perfect. There are indications in Scripture that sin clouds our understanding of right and wrong, so that as sinners we are “given over” to base desires and actions. Failing to follow the law, we proceed from bad to worse, becoming increasing less able to recognize the good. Thus our apprehension of the Natural Law is damaged and imperfect.
      Now, we have it on good authority that all the law and the prophets are summarized in two brief statements, which are that we should love God with all our heart, soul, and mind; and that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. I suspect all moral questions could be adjudicated, given sufficient wisdom and effort, to arrive at the correct and natural law answer, if these two principles are followed.
      When the issue of polygyny was raised earlier, the morality of it became clear to me when I realized that some men having many wives meant some men would have none, which would be very uncharitable to those men. There are other arguments, but if our desire is to give a thumbs up or down to the question, the second great commandment provides guidance.
      It is my intuition that all moral questions could be similarly answered, but it may take several centuries and the wisdom of an archangel to arrive at the proper reasoning.

      • Comment by Gian:

        Polygamy is not a matter of reasoning.
        Per a well-formed conscience, polygamy is wrong.

        In short, it is an axiom, and not a conclusion.

        • Comment by hrefn:

          Really?
          Where does the axiom come from?
          How many of these axioms exist, and what are they?
          Do they just pop into the well-formed conscience by spontaneous generation, like frogs from the Nile mud?
          From what library can I check out the definitive book of moral axioms?
          Has reason nothing to contribute to the discussion about morality? Because axioms, like taste, are outside the realm of argument.
          If something is axiomatic to you, does it follow that it is axiomatic to everyone?
          I agree with you about the morality of polygamy, but I believe reason is vital to the discussion of moral questions.

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          Nonsense. I was talked into believing polygamy was morally wrong by an argument. It was not an axiom that I reached by a dialectic process.

          • Comment by Gian:

            Well man is also a rationalizing animal as they say now.
            You perhaps never held with polygamy so the argument would have come easily.

            I hold it because the Church teaches so.

        • Comment by Patrick:

          Wait, how isn’t polygamy an argument?

          Sounds like a never ending argument to me! *rimshot*

    • Comment by Patrick:

      Hot air, you’re asking for? Say when.

      Natural law describes the path of least risk and resistance to unequivocal goods, starting from common kinds of good (which we can call morals and justice) and ending with private goods (which are needs, like food and shelter).

      An unequivocal good is a good with no downside effects, like peace, trust or health.

      Human beings have many ways to achieve good ends, which are more or less optimistic in accordance with the accrual of downsides, which disturb peace or destroy health. So “I lied my way to the top” would be a downside to success which endangers peace and trust; “I ate too much hummus, and have become ill” is the same idea. The idea of cause and effect is really big and obvious and convicting for these kinds of things, and perhaps this is why we are such an aphorism-loving species.

      As John says often, “hard cases make bad law”, and so natural law should be thought of as applied unexceptionally to people, not men-who-are-supermen or to robots-in-disguise or men-who-are-animals-instead-of-men. Experience is the enforcement agency for natural law, so I think it skews heavily towards a mean.

      I don’t have time to comment more, but I’m curious to see if I’ve said anything so far. I’ll try and revisit this later.

  9. Comment by Gian:

    “objective moral standards”

    And what makes you sure that you can know these objective moral standards, if the slave-holders and polygamists of the old were deluded on certain points, perhaps the moderns (including you) may be wrong on other points.

    The Natural Law, you have defined, as an objective moral law, but you have not provided an argument to the effect that
    1) This objective code can be known to the man,
    2) How is this Law to be known to the man
    i.e. a) Is it a philosophical system starting from a few axioms i.e. ratiocinative
    b) It is a matter of empirical observations
    c) It is a matter of direct intellectual perception i.e. it is all axioms.

    All you seem to be saying is that you infallibly know the moral law from your well-formed conscience.

    But what makes a conscience a well-formed conscience?. Only that it must be in agreement with the Catholic Teachings. That is, your Natural Law is based upon Revelation and not Reason.

    How do you convince non-Catholics?

    • Comment by Patrick:

      “Natural Law is based upon Revelation and not Reason.”

      When was Aristotle the Pope?

      Also, there’s a natural law tradition in Hinduism too, isn’t there?

      • Comment by Gian:

        Fallible reason can not establish an objective moral law. At best, it can establish the existence of a objective moral law but can not establish the contents of this objective moral law.

        To me, our host is engaging in an unconscious equivocation
        1) He says that moral law is a deduction from human nature and nature of reality.
        Provoking the question of what this human nature is and how do we establish the contents of human nature. In fact, this ‘human nature’ and moral law are one and the same thing.
        2) He says that the moral law is given content by dictates of a well-formed conscience.

        Now the word “conscience” in general is Christian, having no analog elsewhere and the term “well-formed conscience” is specifically Catholic and means a conscience that is aligned to Catholic teaching. I do not know how much it is ratiocinative and how much it is revealed.

        • Comment by The OFloinn:

          our host … says that moral law is a deduction from human nature and nature of reality.

          No, he is saying (along with St. Paul, Augustine, Thomas, et al.) that the Natural Law is deducible from human nature (just as the natural laws of physics are deducible from the natures of inanimate bodies). This is not the whole of the moral law.

          Provoking the question of what this human nature is and how do we establish the contents of human nature.

          Human nature: “to be a rational animal.”
          Contents: in addition to the vegetative powers (metabolism, homeostasis, growth/development, and reproduction) and the sensitive powers (sensation, imagination, appetite/emotion, motion) are the specifically rational powers (intellect and volition).
          First rule of natural law: Reason rules acts.
          An educational commentary: http://thomism.wordpress.com/2010/03/01/an-experience-of-natural-law/ providing the following excerpt:

          I took my son to the nutritionist. During the consultation, she told us the ideal human diet. You should divide your plate in two and fill one half with greens; and then split the remaining half between protein and starch. Red meat should be eaten sparingly- three ounces or so (which looks like a golf ball to me).

          Yeah. So… I don’t do that.

          I sat in silence through the consultation, and thought about it on and off for a few months. I knew from the moment I heard her that this was the voice of reason. Given the sort of thing a human being is, that is how you should feed it. The nutritionist herself clearly ate that way, and she was a radiantly healthy, energetic, and as-she-ought-to be. She wasn’t perky or preachy or annoying; just obviously salubrious all the way down. And then there’s me: frequently fatigued; depression prone; cloudy countenanced. Part of this is who I am, but that part can be ignored. I know I’m supposed to be what the nutritionist was, but I find all the means hateful and repugnant. Her diet strikes me as starvation on small portions of joyless hay. Flavorless and ugly. I know that this is a lie. It’s reason that I find repugnant. Said another way, it’s my own nature I find repugnant. Why should that be the way I should have to eat? Why can’t I just eat what I want? The question is answered before I can ask it. I exist in a certain way and my meals should look like what the nutritionist said.

          Other comments:
          http://thomism.wordpress.com/2010/07/24/interior-diaogue-on-obligation/

          The silence of the universe is the measure of your dignity.

          And on a slightly different but related topic:
          http://thomism.wordpress.com/2011/12/30/susskinds-objection-to-probable-natural-laws/

          the word “conscience” in general is Christian, having no analog elsewhere

          The term synderesis appeared in Plato’s Timaeus, a quo Paul’s Letter to the Romans a quo other Christian uses of “conscience.” But you are correct that non-Western law does not recognize the autonomy of the individual. There is shame, but no guilt. It matters only that you are obedient to positive laws and shame applies only if you are caught. For a further discussion, read Toby Huff’s book: The Rise of Early Modern Science, since conscience lays the basis for the autonomy of individual reason not only in natural moral law but in discerning truth in nature.

          • Comment by Patrick:

            “And then there’s me: frequently fatigued; depression prone; cloudy countenanced. Part of this is who I am, but that part can be ignored.”

            Seriously, for those of you reading and nodding – I want you to know how much better I’ve felt, physically and emotionally, since my now-wife started preparing meals for us. You’d be amazed at how much self-loathing is the result of not having regular fresh spinach and Wisconsin cheese sandwiches on heavy, heavy bread, with lots of fresh water to drink and big carrots to munch on. Good food will make you a better person, I swear.

          • Comment by Gian:

            That man is a rational animal is a deduction and thus less certain knowledge that intuitive moral truths such as Do not steal, do not murder etc.

            In fact, it is the sum of all intuitive moral truths that when reflected upon yields the deduction “man is a rational animal”.

            There are opponents of Natural Law approach that should not be confused with modern subjectivists.

          • Comment by Gian:

            Not exactly true about non-Western cultures. The Hindus are big on the concept of Dharma (i.e. your Way or Duty)-it has nothing to do with positive laws or shame.
            The point is that the orientals do not clearly separate natural and supernatural orders and thus Dharma is not a matter of reason but of revelation.

          • Comment by Mary:

            C. S. Lewis’s chapter on “conscience” in Studies in Words is well worth reading.

      • Comment by Gian:

        How can falliable reason establish an objective moral law?. At best, it can establish the existence of the moral law but not the contents thereof.

        If moral law is a deduction from human nature and the nature of reality, then that provokes the question of what this ‘human nature’ is and how can we know it. In fact, this ‘human nature’ and moral law are one and the same thing.

        Now if moral law is given content by the dictates of a well-formed conscience, then the very term ‘well-formed conscience’ is specifically Catholic and refers to a conscience that is aligned to Catholic teachings.
        I do not see what this has to do with deductions or ratiocinations. It is a matter of revelation and not reason.

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          Fallible reason can establish objective moral law the same way it establishes objective theories of mathematics and geometry, or, for that matter, objective positive law. Imperfectly.

          • Comment by wrf3:

            Everyone pay really close attention to what John just said:

            Fallible reason can establish objective moral law the same way it establishes objective theories of mathematics and geometry, or, for that matter, objective positive law. Imperfectly.

            Mathematic/geometric theories are about what is. 1+1 = 2. In Euclidean geometry, the sum of the squares of the sides of a right triangle equals the square of the hypotenuse. Fermat’s last theorem has been proven. Nobody argues over these things; once certain axioms are accepted, these results follow perfectly from the rules of inference.

            But John then pulls a bait and switch, because moral law is about what ought to be. Now, at it’s root, the word “imperfect” expresses a moral judgement: it means “not ideal” which means “not good enough.”

            So what John said about reasoning about objective moral law is that it establishes moral law in a way that’s not good enough.

            But that’s what the whole point of a moral law is: to establish what is good! How can one reason about good if one can’t correctly reason about good?

            John can only retreat to three positions:
            1) there is no natural law. What is claimed to be natural law is just groups of individuals carrying their particular stones up the mountain.
            2) there is a natural law, he just doesn’t know the formula, or
            3) what he calls natural law is actually given by revelation and can’t be found by observing nature. It’s supernatural, not natural. The stones have be carried down from the mountain.

            • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

              There’s such a thing as improving one’s imperfect knowledge. Your position 2 seems to me not a retreat at all, but rather what anyone says who believes there is an objective morality: I don’t fully know what it is, but this is my current best guess and I’m going to follow that until I encounter some new evidence or argument. Thus we argue that the slaveowners were wrong in the same way we argue that Newton was wrong; Einstein corrected Newton (and Newton corrected Galileo), but it does not follow that nobody can correct Einstein. We just don’t know what the improvement is going to be. If we did, we’d already be using the superior theory.

              • Comment by wrf3:

                There’s such a thing as improving one’s imperfect knowledge.

                Sure. Suppose we’re looking for the roots of an equation and we decide to use the Newton-Raphson method of iteration. In some cases we can use that to improve the answer. Sometimes it diverges from the answer.

                When you say “improving one’s imperfect knowledge,” in one case you’re trying to converge on what is. In the other, you’re trying to converge on what ought to be. In the second case, “improving one’s imperfect knowledge” means “becoming more good”. But that means you’re trying to converge to the good. Ok. What is “the good”? Point to it in Nature so that we can all agree what it is. You can certainly point to your personal preferences, and John can point to his. But Natural Law says that Nature has one (or more) preferences that we should likewise prefer.

                Oh, and btw, this article on modern day slavery is informative.

                • Comment by Patrick:

                  “Ok. What is “the good”? Point to it in Nature so that we can all agree what it is.”

                  Your homework assignment is to read “The Republic”, and try to figure out why other smart folks think it’s important.

                  Hint: use your yardstick.

                • Comment by The OFloinn:

                  What is “the good”? Point to it in Nature so that we can all agree what it is.

                  Once you realize what you mean by saying “She is a good doctor” or “This diet is good for you” or “He was a good forger,” you are well on your way.

                  Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim. But a certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them. Where there are ends apart from the actions, it is the nature of the products to be better than the activities. Now, as there are many actions, arts, and sciences, their ends also are many; the end of the medical art is health, that of shipbuilding a vessel, that of strategy victory, that of economics wealth.
                  — Aristotle, The Nichomachean Ethics

                  http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.1.i.html

                  It only becomes difficult when you don’t like the boundaries that reason sets on action that one begins to object to the obvious.

                  • Comment by wrf3:

                    Once you realize what you mean by saying “She is a good doctor” or “This diet is good for you” or “He was a good forger,” you are well on your way.

                    I know what I mean by “good”. In fact, John and I discussed it in the post at August 22, 2012 at 4:40 pm, where I wrote: I began by agreeing with you that morality is based on goal seeking behavior. Things that lead toward a goal are deemed to be good and things that lead away from a goal are deemed to be bad.

                    All you’ve done is reinforced what I previously said.

                    It only becomes difficult when you don’t like the boundaries that reason sets on action that one begins to object to the obvious.

                    Except you’re engaging in special pleading and not rigorous argument. I ask, “what is the goal of nature? Is it life or is it death?” A lot of electrons later, John finally says: “I submit that the principle holding life better than death is a moral intuition which is irreducible to any higher axiom, and is one shared by all honest men. ”

                    You’ll note that he doesn’t appeal to something outside of himself. He can’t say that life is a goal of nature, all he can say is that it is his self-evident goal. But we all know that there are things that are claimed to be self-evident that depend on which group of individuals one talks to. Hidden in John’s statement is the implication “if you don’t agree with my personal self-evident truth, you’re either dishonest or incapable of knowing truth.” That’s hardly a compelling argument.

                    • Comment by John C Wright:

                      Except that my words cannot bear the interpretation you put on them. I did not say “I hold it to be self evident that life is better than death” I said “The principle of holding life better than death, if you present it to me as a principle, is presented as an axiom.”

                      “But we all know that there are things that are claimed to be self-evident that depend on which group of individuals one talks to. “

                      You are doing here the selfsame thing you accuse me of: stating your personal preference as a universal. We do not all know any such thing. A statement is self evident when the statement testifies on its own behalf to the truth of its subject: “I think, therefore I am” is a formal and logical statement, not an expression of personal preference. It is also self evident, since no one who neither think nor exists could make such a statement.

                • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

                  You can certainly point to your personal preferences, and John can point to his.

                  Again I refer you to the thousand-year morality, that set of arguments and evidence which would convince me that an action was right, no matter how I felt about it. I assert that this code exists, and is the same for every human except psychopaths. I further assert that to call this “preference” is a misuse of the word. I have a “preference” for vanilla over chocolate ice cream. I cannot change it by an act of will; but if I could take a pill to make me prefer chocolate, I would happily do so. My belief that slavery is wrong is different from that; not only can I not change it by an act of will, but I cannot want to change it, nor want to want to change it, and so up through the recursions. If you offered me a pill that would infallibly make me think slavery was correct, I would refuse. This is not a “preference”, which may be fixed but carries no moral weight; it is a conviction.

                  • Comment by wrf3:

                    Again I refer you to the thousand-year morality, that set of arguments and evidence which would convince me that an action was right, no matter how I felt about it.

                    I hope you’ll understand that I’m having trouble keeping up with all of the posts I’d like to answer.

                    My response to your 1,000 year claim is that we’ve had these same arguments for thousands of years already. Maybe you should ask for 2,000 years; or 5,000, or 10,000. Or maybe, taking a cue from artificial intelligence and searching large state spaces, it’s something that can’t be computed.

                    I assert that this code exists, and is the same for every human except psychopaths.

                    It’s interesting how you and John demonize those who don’t come to the same conclusion. Yet we know that we cannot solve the game of Chess, and certainly not Go. We can agree on the goal of the game, but it is impossible to compute a winning opening move (or if such a thing is even possible). Life has a vastly larger state space than Chess or Go (it has to, since life includes those games). Maybe we need to recognize that, once common goals have been agreed upon, is that the best we can do is develop various heuristics.

                    To, there’s a hidden assumption in your claim that human brains have equal ability to compute the same answers. That everyone one has functionally identical wiring. That’s not true.

                    This is not a “preference”, which may be fixed but carries no moral weight; it is a conviction.

                    So what? You haven’t demonstrated that your conviction is based on anything more than a preference.

                    • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

                      My response to your 1,000 year claim is that we’ve had these same arguments for thousands of years already. Maybe you should ask for 2,000 years; or 5,000, or 10,000. Or maybe, taking a cue from artificial intelligence and searching large state spaces, it’s something that can’t be computed.

                      Well yes, we’ve had these arguments for thousands of years, and a lot of progress has been made; plus we have more evidence now. Slavery, for example, is now agreed to be immoral. Central control of economies is likewise pretty much discredited; I suggest that while this is in-principle deducible, the existence of a lot of apparently smart people who thought it a good idea shows that we needed to be whacked over the head with the clue-by-four of experimental evidence. Too bad about the attrition in the experimental subjects, but oh well, you can’t make an omelet without a millennial breeding program to produce chickens that lay a humongous egg every day or so. Observe, also, that no single human has been around for any reasonable fraction of that time; we may stand on the shoulders of giants, but still, we each have to at least study up on their thoughts.

                      As for being noncomputable, such things do exist, but a noncomputability theorem requires a bit more proof than “we’ve been trying for a while and haven’t succeeded”.

                      Too, there’s a hidden assumption in your claim that human brains have equal ability to compute the same answers. That everyone one has functionally identical wiring. That’s not true.

                      How do you know this?

                      Yet we know that we cannot solve the game of Chess, and certainly not Go.

                      Again: “We don’t have the computing power” is not the same as “the solution is not computable”. The latter is an extremely strong claim, especially in the case of games whose phase space is finite and quantized. In fact I’m reasonably convinced that chess must have a solution; do you really disagree?

        • Comment by Patrick:

          “At best, it can establish the existence of the moral law but not the contents thereof.”

          Why not?

          Why can’t fallible reason establish the contents of moral law? You don’t need an owl’s eyes to see determine the contents of your refrigerator. Horseshoes and handgrenades, bro.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      I never said anything about infallibly knowing anything. Where do you get this stuff? From now on, please include in quotes whatever statement of mine you are disputing at the beginning of any comment, so that I know what topic you are discussing. Otherwise, I am left with the impression that you are asking me to defend an argument you started with someone else outside the range of my hearing.

    • Comment by The OFloinn:

      Natural law being objective requires two things:
      1. A human nature to be the subject of nature-al”
      2. An object-ive toward which that nature is aimed.
      +++
      Human nature is to be a rational animal. The good is to perfect that nature; that is, to grow incrementally closer to the fullness of the nature. Hence, we say, “exercise is good for you” because it helps perfect one’s bodily health (animal) and “knowledge is good” because it helps perfect one’s mental health (rational). An evil is a deficiency in the good (defectus boni); hence, sloth and ignorance are evils. This is encapsulated in the saying “Mens sana in corpore sano” (healthy mind in healthy body). Note that “sane” and “sanitary” have the same root.
      +++
      The crucial point is to determine the end toward which an action is directed. Swinging a baseball bat is neither good nor evil. But swinging it with the intention of hitting a home run is good, while swinging it with the intention of knocking someone senseless is evil. Thus, it is the end or object that determines whether an action is good. Hence, “objective.”
      +++
      The modern use of “objective” to mean the subject of the common sensibles is a different matter. However, anyone who cultivates right reason can reason his way to the natural law: the demand that we perfect our natures as rational animals. It is only because some people don’t like where this leads that they fall into nihilism and begin denying that there is any such thing as human nature, that there is a will, that there is a “self”, or that there are ends or even causes.
      +++
      A primer can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Christian-Philosophy-St-Thomas-Aquinas/dp/0268008019/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1345747328&sr=1-4&keywords=etienne+gilson

    • Comment by robertjwizard:

      I would suggest that you personally let someone else handle it. You come across to a non-Catholic as scary.

  10. Comment by Gian:

    I know of two usages of the term Natural Law
    1) Our participation in the Eternal Law i.e. the facet of Divine Wisdom that pertains to man
    2) Our knowledge of the Moral Law that can be obtained through unaided reason i.e. without Revelation.

    Now I do not know how much these two usages are consistent with each other. My (fallible) observations are
    1) Protestants do not believe that we can know Moral Law consistently without Revelation
    2) There is debate among Catholics how much unaided reason can ground Natural Law.
    3) Hindus believe in Revelation and not in reason. The Hindu Law is revealed (Vedas and Gita).

    There is an overreaching of Rationalism. that we can like 18C and 19C philosophers deduce everything about human nature and justice from a few axioms. But this approach is simplistic and wrong-headed, esp for Christians, since for them Justice is not a set of propositions but relationship with the Just One.

    • Comment by hrefn:

      Perhaps we agree more than I thought.
      Unless one is willing to give up any moral judgement, one must admit the existence of objective morality, i.e. Natural Law. I think this has been convincingly argued in several places above.
      Next, human beings apprehend this Law, at least to some degree. Even children’s quarrels prove this. “No fair!” or “He hit me first!” are eloquent appeals to Natural Law. In Romans 2:14-15, Paul also argues from observation that everyone has some understanding of right and wrong, which seems to have nothing to do with Revelation.
      You state that Protestants believe we cannot know the moral law “consistently”, and that Catholics disagree as to the extent unaided reason can ground Natural Law. Would it be reasonable to say that it is dubious that Fallen man’s unaided reason can come to a perfect comprehension of the Natural Law, while also admitting reason has a role to play in discovering moral truths? Or to put it another way, the Natural Law is not purely axiomatic?
      If so, we are in agreement.

      • Comment by Gian:

        “objective morality, i.e. Natural Law”

        Here lies the unwarranted leap.
        Our host has not made it sufficiently clear that Natural Law is a term in Catholic philosophy and theology where it is contrasted with the Divine Law aka the revelation.

        Basic moral truths are intuited and not reasoned through. Partly there is ambiguity in the word “reason” and also in “intution”.
        Here by ‘intuition” I mean direct intellectual grasp of truths such as Do not steal.
        By “reason” I mean the process of discursive reasoning, that starting from one truth, proceeds to another truth.

        From intutive knowledge of moral truths, the philosophers erect systems that seek to unify these truths into some kind of framework that ideally proceeds from certain moral axioms.
        These axioms are however less self-evident and thus less certain than the moral truths that the philosophers claim to derive from them.
        Examples of moral axioms are “I own myself” , non-aggression principle, man is a rational animal, man is a rationalizing animal etc

    • Comment by Patrick:

      “There is an overreaching of Rationalism. that we can like 18C and 19C philosophers deduce everything about human nature and justice from a few axioms.”

      By what else would such things be deduced?

      • Comment by Gian:

        Human nature is not a propositional system. The Moral Law is only one facet-notice we are not talking of love or hope at all. After all, a righteous man is not one who has never done an evil thing. He should have done some good things as well and good here does not mean not-bad. Man is made in the image of Creator god and thus man is to be a creator himself.
        All this is not going to be covered in a propositional system
        Secondly, human nature has historical aspects. If you believe in the story of Fall, then see if you can fit the Fall and the Curse into a logical system.

  11. Comment by wrf3:

    The yardstick you ask me to produce is in your hand.

    No, I’m asking you to produce your yardstick, not mine. You’re making the claim that our yardsticks ought to be identical (since natural law is binding on everyone). The only way for me to know that is for you to produce your yardstick so that they can be compared.

    The act of asking me to produce it is a demand for evidence; but a demand for evidence cannot be made unless there is a moral imperative to be honest and forthcoming in debate.

    Oh, nonsense. The demand for evidence is simply a demand for evidence. I have no idea what you intend to produce. If it’s like the other times, I suspect nothing will be forthcoming. I think you’ll simply reaffirm that you claim that there is a natural law, discoverable by reason, but will once again fail to produce the goods. In the event that you prove my expectation wrong (which I really hope you do), I will then subject it to scrutiny and determine whether or not I think it true for myself.

    Hence, the mere act of asking to see this yardstick indicates that you yourself are using it.

    All it proves is that I’m using a yardstick. And the first test won’t be a moral judgement. That is, it will not be “is it better or worse than any other purported yardstick” but, rather, it will be a simple test for equality: “is it, or is it not, the yardstick that I use?” Once that question is answered, then we can progress to the question, “is it the yardstick that I should use?” After all, that’s the claim made for natural law.

    • Comment by Patrick:

      “The only way for me to know that is for you to produce your yardstick so that they can be compared.”

      Really? A yardstick measuring contest? That’s gross.

    • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

      All it proves is that I’m using a yardstick. And the first test won’t be a moral judgement. That is, it will not be “is it better or worse than any other purported yardstick” but, rather, it will be a simple test for equality: “is it, or is it not, the yardstick that I use?”

      This assumes that you have full access to your yardstick. But by the natural law account of morality, and also by my materialist account, you don’t. What you have access to is a current best guess; and all anyone else can give you is their own current best guess. If there is an objective morality which we are discovering rather than inventing, then these best guesses are approximations to the same thing, and over time we may expect them to converge, but there should be no expectation, at any particular time, that they are the same.

      An analogy: Suppose we are trying to prove that two axiomatic systems are the same, but unfortunately we don’t have direct access to the axioms; all we’ve got are some theorems. Worse, we don’t know with 100% certainty that all the theorems are actually provable in the respective systems; some of them may be errors. So what we’re trying to do is to deduce the axioms of each system, and then we can check whether the axioms are isomorphic to each other, and if they, fine, we’re done. But we have not only to come up with the set of axioms that produces each list of theorems, but also decide which theorems are spurious. (To extend the analogy, there do exist several former theorems that everyone agrees are spurious, and we no longer look for axioms that would generate them.) Nevertheless, we are convinced, at any rate, that we are dealing with axiomatic systems which are in fact generated by some set of axioms; we haven’t got lists of unconnected statements. Moreover, some of us have the strong intuition that the systems are in fact isomorphic, and will eventually be shown isomorphic by throwing out some particular spurious theorems in the other guy’s list. And then you come along, and say, “It’s easy! Just show me your axioms and I’ll tell you whether you have the same system I do!”

      Well yes, if we knew the axioms we wouldn’t have a problem. But all we’ve got are these dang theorems.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Fine. We agree on the fact that you have made a demand for evidence. Do I have a duty to reply? If I fail to treat your question seriously, have I done you a moral wrong, even if only a very slight one?

      You see, by itself, the demand for evidence is merely a raw fact, and does not translate into the moral assumption you are tacitly making. The moral assumption is that your demand for evidence is legitimate, part of an honest attempt to seek the truth, and that I as a truth seeker myself am obligated to accede to the demand and produce the evidence.

      I have done so, and twice now. You continue to insist I have not, and so I begin to doubt your sincerity and perhaps your sanity. I have a witness, you, which I call to the stand, and I ask you to testify on what grounds you make the demand for evidence. I ask a simple question with an obvious answer and you puff and huff and run in a circle and say that “a demand for evidence is a demand for evidence” (thank you Mr Tautology!) without telling me on what ground the demand rests.

      I agree you have the right to make the demand. It is a legitimate demand. I am morally obligated by my honesty to answer. First tell me the source of the obligation? Tell me the source of the legitimacy? Tell me what authority endows the right?

      You made a feeble attempt earlier, first claiming that it rested on that bedrock of nihilism, the arbitrary will. You said I would be honest if I felt like it. Second you claimed there was some survival value in honesty, that brains which embraced contradictions crashed and burned, and your biological constraints somehow made you inclined for no reason to wish to avoid the pain of crashing and burning, therefore honesty is the best policy. This attempt is to rest it on the hedonistic axiom that pleasure seeking, or at least seeking to preserve life, presumably by an enthymeme which provides we have a duty to preserve life or seek pleasure, make such steps a prudent attempt to fulfill that duty.

      From this, we can deduce that your inchoate philosophy must maintain that life is better than death as a general principle. For, if not, the moral imperative to be honest in order to preserve your brain from crashing due to self contradiction would not be an imperative nor a motive. I submit that the principle holding life better than death is a moral intuition which is irreducible to any higher axiom, and is one shared by all honest men. (This does not imply that such is the only principle, nor that there are not exceptions which might override it.) But it does imply that it is a principle that is objectively so — or else you would not treat it as an objective principle.

      In other words, your demand for evidence is a demand with a specifically moral component. You are addressing me in the imperative, implying that I “ought” to do something. You are not describing a fact but calling on a right. On what does that demand rest?

      It rests on the Natural Law. Your yardstick is and must be the same as mine, or else we could not be having this conversation, or even be able to imagine having it.

      You ask for evidence? You, sir, are my evidence.

      • Comment by wrf3:

        Fine. We agree on the fact that you have made a demand for evidence. Do I have a duty to reply? If I fail to treat your question seriously, have I done you a moral wrong, even if only a very slight one?

        If your evidence is, in fact, evidence for the natural law you claim exists, we could use that to answer your question. So why don’t we do that? Oh, wait…

        You see, by itself, the demand for evidence is merely a raw fact, and does not translate into the moral assumption you are tacitly making.

        Except I’m not doing what you claim I am. I am asking for your evidence. I am not making any moral demand on you to answer it or not. Good grief, if I could make that moral demand, that you really ought to provide it, then you would have done it, already. Obviously, I haven’t been able to appeal to any form of natural law to get you to say what your evidence is. Show me how it’s done.

        I have a witness, you, which I call to the stand, and I ask you to testify on what grounds you make the demand for evidence.

        My curiosity.

        First tell me the source of the obligation? Tell me the source of the legitimacy? Tell me what authority endows the right?

        You want me to tell you the source of your mental states? They’re your mental states.

        … therefore honesty is the best policy

        Once again, you’re attributing to me what I did not say. I did not say “honesty is the best policy,” as if it were some natural law. I said, “honesty is my policy.”

        From this, we can deduce that your inchoate philosophy must maintain that life is better than death as a general principle.

        Considering that I already said this at the very beginning of this thread, in my post on August 22, 2012 at 3:01 pm, you don’t have to deduce it. Let me refresh your memory: Next, there are only two major goals — life and death. Everything else falls into one of those two categories. This is trivially shown to be so, since life enables all of our choices, and death ends them.

        It’s no secret that I personally prefer life. Other people don’t. That’s why I then asked, So, what is the goal of Nature? One could argue that evolution “demands” life; one could also argue that the universe will end in maximum entropy, in which no life is possible.

        So, after all this time, you finally answer:

        I submit that the principle holding life better than death is a moral intuition which is irreducible to any higher axiom, and is one shared by all honest men.

        So, “life is better than death” is an article of faith, is that it? Your particular brain happens to have this particular moral intuition, for no other reason than it has it. I have no problem with this statement, except that it means your position is a natural accident and is not based on a law of nature.

  12. Comment by Darth Imperius:

    Well John, it sounds to me like your whole philosophy is based on fear: fear of the Void, fear of the Shadow, fear of unconditioned consciousness, fear of a mind without categories of thought, fear of nihilism, postmodernism, deconstructionism and the rest of your usualsuspect-isms. Why do you find all this so frightening? If God is in all things, then perhaps he can be beheld most clearly in this pre-categorical void into which you fear to look? In many traditions, this awareness is considered the highest state of enlightenment – satori, Samadhi, etc. – not the highest state of ignorance!

    What you like to do is to play legalistic, semantic games, to arrange words in patterns which you confuse with truth, objective reality, natural law, etc. But words are not reality, and the map is not the territory! This has been the great error of Western thought since Socrates, which science is finally beginning to correct: a confusion of word-constructs and facts. We see this problem most clearly in areas like quantum physics, where conventional language and reasoning breaks down in trying to describe the way the universe actually is. It is also a problem for mystics when trying to convey their inner experiences. This is why a weltanschauung rooted in scripture and law is doomed to failure, and why the way forward is more mathematics and meditation, and far less chatter!

    Of course, these too are just words, but perhaps they have in some way made you think outside the word-boxes in which you appear to be trapped. These words are just a challenge to quiet your mind and see what you discover.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      One might with equal reason say that my philosophy, and all philosophy, and all love of wisdom, is based on fear of unwisdom, ignorance, folly, and evil.

      Even a satanic lunatic like you should be ashamed at attempting so transparent, childish, and unconvincing an ad hominem. Are you attempting to stir me to laughter? The trick can be played on any philosophy and any stance whatsoever: you could call Christianity fear of the devil, call the desire for life a fear of death, call the desire for beauty a fear of ugliness, call the love of liberty a fear of slavery, call virtue a fear of vice, call communism a fear of capitalism and capitalism a fear of communism.

      To make any evil seem good, we now have an easy formula: accuse those who avoid that evil of cowardice.

      “What you like to do is to play legalistic, semantic games, to arrange words in patterns which you confuse with truth, objective reality, natural law, etc. But words are not reality … Of course, these too are just words, but perhaps they have in some way made you think outside the word-boxes in which you appear to be trapped …”

      No. Your use of words to denounce the use of words has merely excited a combination of laughter and pity. You have the disease in a more extreme form than wrf3 and Dr Andreassen, but the causes are the same and the prognosis is the same. Postmodernism is fatal to the reason. You are sadly mistaken if you think your master, the Void, will allow you to keep meditation or mathematics once he is done wiping the meaning of words out of your soul.

      • Comment by Darth Imperius:

        Now that you mention it, stirring you to laughter might be the best thing my words could do. Because only laughter has no opposite; what is a laughing man in fear of? This is the genius of the “crazy wisdom” of the Zen masters, for whom the enlightened man is a clown. Wherever I see stern, serious, religious people, I see the opposite of wisdom. Why so serious? In an absurd universe, surely seriousness is the greatest sin and laughter is our best defense!

        Also, if you must hurl ad hominem invectives, I would prefer “Zen-Cosmicist lunatic” or “Sith lunatic” to “Satanic lunatic”. Satanism is too inverse-Judeo-Christian a construct for my tastes, and is hopelessly unfashionable and passe.

        • Comment by Patrick:

          “This is the genius of the “crazy wisdom” of the Zen masters, for whom the enlightened man is a clown.”

          You sound like a guy whose read an awful lot of very short articles on Zen Buddhism lately.

          “and is hopelessly unfashionable and passe.”

          You are a fun guy though.

          • Comment by Darth Imperius:

            Actually most of my knowledge of Zen comes from old episodes of “Kung Fu”. And yes, I have returned to the Dark Side, because as R’as al Ghul said: “To conquer fear you must become fear.” Or to quote Master Po: “Fear is the only darkness.” You must pass through the valley of the shadow of death and enter the gates of Hell itself if you would fear no evil! In tantric systems like Tibetan Buddhism this is known as “the law of inversion”; Carl Jung called it “integrating the Shadow.” It’s horrific and terrifying, but also most enlightening, empowering and even fun. Perhaps there is something similar in Christianity, but I rather doubt it…

            • Comment by Nostreculsus:

              Dear Darth Sean,

              I believe the Christian version is “the dark night of the soul”.

              Incidentally, I thought you were quite astute when you proclaimed the coming Aeon of Chaos, which will also be an age of information.

              By its nature, new information cannot be deduced or predicted. Hence it will appear to be random. There are no material means to distinguish information from chaos. As Mr Wright has been saying, ” Meaningfulness is not a material property.”

    • Comment by Patrick:

      Waitaminute, I thought you were a Grey Jedi! What happened??

    • Comment by Mary:

      Such terror this post holds. A blind fear of humility, of the way that others may be like one’s self, of not being noticed as different. And a dread that one has no good way to do it, which leads to resorting to a bad one, to declaring that “It’s better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven” — despite that you will find no kingdom there.

    • Comment by robertjwizard:

      Ah, man, luckily I was bored at 4-something in the morning! You know Mr. Wright’s blog is a thumpin’ when the Sith Master Sean pays a visit. Alas I too believed him when he said he had gone gray, or as he said it, changed from Sith to Jedi.

      I can understand you all falling for it. But I’m a bartender, I let my cynicism slip!

      • Comment by Sylvie D. Rousseau:

        As a Satanist equivalent, he probably has (at least) a split personality, like say, Smeagol-Gollum. I suspect he really had an improvement but that it was of short duration. I hope he will come back from darkness again for long enough to prefer his new state, even if it means he will be less entertaining for us.

  13. Comment by Paul Amore:

    Mr. Wright:

    In the spirit of Orwell’s “The best books tell you what you already know,” you may enjoy James Taranto’s column today, which illustrates how modern leftism is merely sugar-coated Gnosticism.

  14. Comment by wrf3:

    On August 23, 2012 at 6:03 pm, John wrote:

    By this argument I am pointing out the contradiction between your behavior (asking for proof) and your philosophy (which logically implies no one has any right to ask for proof, or ask for anything).

    Why does my asking have to be according to rights? Why can’t I ask, hoping for grace? Is it because you’re a lawyer and I’m a Protestant? I ask, because I’m curious. I ask hoping, but not demanding, that you answer. What’s so hard about that?

    How is that argument either a category error or a violation of the law of non-contradiction? Are you claiming that the law of non-contradiction does not apply to human action? That if you say one thing and then unsay, you have not contradicted yourself? Or are you talking about another topic unrelated to our discussion?

    The law of non-contradiction is a statement of “is”. It does not become a statement of “ought” until it becomes a step toward the attainment of some goal. TLNG is an axiom that is necessary for rational communication to take place. I am hoping for rational communication from you; I am not demanding it.

    If you are not claiming that I should reason through these arguments with you, then there is no point in your reasoning through these arguments with you. If you are claiming that I should, then you should be honest enough to admit that the word “should” means “should.”

    I would use “should” if this were a works-based conversation. I have not, and am not, demanding that you answer, or that you answer truthfully. That’s a burden you’re placing on yourself and then ascribing the onus to me.


    You are trying to get something for nothing.

    Grace is like that.

    You want me to abide by a strict standard of rational honesty, for, if not, you would not ask me any questions at all;

    That’s not true, and as a lawyer you know that’s not true. Surely you’ve witnessed, or at least heard of, perjury. And I wager you’d get a witness to perjure themselves if it would help your case. At least, that’s a tactic used by lawyers on TV. In point of fact, I ask hoping for an honest reply, but I’m not demanding it.

    but when asked on what grounds you make this admittedly legitimate demand, you change the subject, put your fingers in your ears, and whistle. You want me to be honest with you, but you deny that you should be honest with me.

    Yes, of course I want you to be honest with me. But my wants do not place a burden on you. You can do what you will. And I’ve never denied that I should be honest with you. In point of fact, I have always said that I would be honest with you. I have also said that the reasons that I have for being honest might, or might not, be reasons that you would find persuasive.

    • Comment by Patrick:

      “I am hoping for rational communication from you; I am not demanding it.”

      What you ‘hope’ for is irrelevant; what you are doing is what we credit as moral, immoral, etc.

      Words of yours are falling onto the keyboard. They have question marks on them. You are asking for something!

      *reads more*

      There are lots of words. Lots of italics. This request is very specific.

      *reads on*

      There are bullet points all over the place. These are conditions.

      *dawn of truth*

      Ask, request, expect… Demand! These are demands!

      de·mand/diˈmand/
      Noun:
      An insistent and peremptory request, made as if by right.
      Verb:
      Ask authoritatively or brusquely.

      *stops a second*

      But how do you demand that somebody admit that there are no such things are rights?

      *pushes chair up to the table, closes laptop, goes for a nice evening run*

      • Comment by DGDDavidson:

        That nicely sums up what Mr. Wright has been trying to explain to him. Let’s see if he gets it this time.

        It is as difficult as trying to get someone to understand the law of non-contradiction while he’s adamantly refusing to see that he’s already relying on it.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Why does my asking have to be according to rights? Why can’t I ask, hoping for grace? Is it because you’re a lawyer and I’m a Protestant? I ask, because I’m curious. I ask hoping, but not demanding, that you answer. What’s so hard about that?

      I am not saying you have the emotional condition of impatience we call a demand. I mean that you have a right to expect me to be honest and give you and answer, and that, without this right, you would have no right to ask.

      Do you deny there is any ethical dimension or moral component AT ALL to the process of philosophical thought and debate? It is not wrong for me to lie? I am not asking whether you hope I do not lie, or whether you ask me not to lie like Oliver the orphan asking for more gruel as a plea. Are you seriously, honestly, truthfully telling me I do you no wrong whatsoever if I lie to you? What about if I smite you on the mouth? Or steal your coat?

      I am not asking whether you forgive me. Perhaps you have a forgiving nature. I am asking whether there is anything to forgive.

      If you are just toying with me, asking questions you don’t mean and expecting answers you don’t want and won’t heed, and you yourself have no interest and no duty in being honest in our discussion here, then go jump off a bridge and stop bothering me. I expect and demand honesty. I have a right to it.

      Do you have no right to honesty from me? I solemnly assure you I will not answer you honestly any further if you honestly say you have no right to honest answers from me.

      • Comment by wrf3:

        I mean that you have a right to expect me to be honest and give you and answer, and that, without this right, you would have no right to ask.

        I understand what you meant. But my response is that I’m not acting out of a notion of rights at all. I’m not asking you questions because I think I have the right that you answer me. Nor am I asking you questions based on a “right” to expect honest answers. My placing of obligations on your conduct simply doesn’t enter into the equation.

        Do you deny there is any ethical dimension or moral component AT ALL to the process of philosophical thought and debate?

        There can be. But I’m not the one on the witness stand. This discussion isn’t about what I think I know and what I think I can prove. You are the one who has made the claim that Natural Law can explain what these rights are and how they arise. It’s up to you to prove your case; it isn’t up to me to prove your case. Do you understand that? What I might or might not happen to think about this or that is utterly irrelevant. Natural law theory should be able to tell me what I ought to think about it and, more importantly, why.

        Or (blinding flash) maybe I’m assuming too much?

        Suppose for the sake of argument that I am not a human being. Instead, I’m a little green man from Alpha Centuari. We don’t have a common biology, I’m silicon based, not carbon. We don’t have common life experiences, especially since we have three sexes and you only have two. Our physics and engineering is a bit better than yours, since we’ve mastered interstellar flight and you haven’t; but we do agree on E=mc2 and the Heisenberg Uncertainly Principle (although on my world it’s Mxyzptlk’s “Huh, that’s odd” Observation). On this basis, can Natural Law explain what obligations might exist between us, and why? How I ought to treat you and you ought to treat me? Can it do that? Or is it only for human beings who happen to have “compatible” brain wiring?

        Do you have no right to honesty from me? I solemnly assure you I will not answer you honestly any further if you honestly say you have no right to honest answers from me.

        Really? Really??? Your ethical behavior depends on what I do? If I’m ignorant, or simply mistaken, or even Old Scratch himself, you’d not be honest in your philosophical discussions? That’s what Natural Law says? Has Jesus heard about that?

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          You had your chance to answer my question honestly.

          You decided dishonestly to evade the question, and retreat under a flurry of gibbering ad hominem and nonsense — questions having nothing to do with anything.

          Really? Really??? Your ethical behavior depends on what I do? If I’m ignorant, or simply mistaken, or even Old Scratch himself, you’d not be honest in your philosophical discussions? That’s what Natural Law says? Has Jesus heard about that?

          Hardly an honest answer. Here we see merely a rhetorical flourish which, ironically, has no meaning unless to criticize my moral code as immoral, the one thing that cannot be done unless there is a natural law by whose standards manmade moral codes can be judged.

          My ethical behavior includes the Ayn Randian principle of not allowing the intellectual equivalent of thieves to steal from me, to commit acts of ‘white blackmail’ where they can make endless demands on me due to my good nature while offering nothing in return due to their bad nature. And that is what your gaily irreverent illogic is: a mental and spiritual form of theft.

          You have made it abundantly clear that you will say anything rather than answer my questions, and will say whatever false things you need to say to maintain the pretense that I have not answered you fully and fairly.

          You say you are doing this for a frivolous reason: as an act of mental masturbation, not seriously, not soberly, not honestly. My moral code allows me to take you at your word and to expel yourself from a conversation that you have no interest in pursuing.

          I said my terms. You did not answer. You are not willing to abide by the law you expect me to abide by. The conversation is over.

          My code also allows for forgiveness. If you answer the question, I speak to you like one adult to another. If you continue to jape and gawp and fart and caper like a dull-witted sophomore gargling at his own jokes, expect no more than to be shown the door.

  15. Comment by wrf3:

    On August 23, 2012 at 10:44 pm, Rolf Andreassen wrote:

    What on Earth is the purpose of arguing with someone who doesn’t accept non-contradiction?

    Just, wow. I wrote: … I hold to the law of non-contradiction … and you turn it into “doesn’t accept non-contradiction”.

    You continued,

    If you meet such a being, you should tip your hat…

    Having met such people, I happen to agree with your prescription. So, are you such a person who holds that X and ~X can be true at the same time and in the same relation, or are you just unable to read? In either case, maybe I should go find my hat…

    So, just by continuing the conversation, you are either wasting your time in the most ridiculous manner possible, or else you are assuming that Mr Wright does, in fact, accept non-contradiction.

    I do assume he holds it, because I’ve already said that TLNC is required for meaningful communication. You seem to miss the point that my assumption that he holds it is not a moral obligation that he do so. If he were to say, “I don’t hold to TLNC” then I would, in fact, go do something else.

    If we have the shared goal of mutual communication, then we have to have the shared premise of TLNC. Where, in this, is the moral obligation that he communicate with me according to TLNC? In fact, where is the moral obligation that he talk to me at all?

    • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

      Just, wow. I wrote: … I hold to the law of non-contradiction … and you turn it into “doesn’t accept non-contradiction”.

      I wasn’t accusing you of being contradictory. I was rhetorically asking why, if you thought Mr Wright didn’t accept non-contradiction, you were still posting.

      If we have the shared goal of mutual communication, then we have to have the shared premise of TLNC. Where, in this, is the moral obligation that he communicate with me according to TLNC?

      Nonetheless the fact remains that you do actually have that shared premise. If you didn’t (and were aware of the fact), then by your own admission you would stop trying to communicate. It follows that you share at least one basis for reasoning with Mr Wright; which, if I understand him correctly, is what he calls natural law. Now that I think about it, this is actually rather broader than what I’ve been calling objective morality; perhaps this is the source of the confusion. Then again, perhaps I’m misunderstanding his definition.

      • Comment by wrf3:

        I was rhetorically asking why, if you thought Mr Wright didn’t accept non-contradiction, you were still posting.

        If I thought that he didn’t accept non-contradiction (and I think that he does, because he has said that he does), I would still be interested in his arguments to see where the contradiction(s) lie. It was a fascinating experience talking to a Hindu who claimed that the law of non-contradiction didn’t matter.

        Nonetheless the fact remains that you do actually have that shared premise. If you didn’t (and were aware of the fact), then by your own admission you would stop trying to communicate.

        Eventually. But I would decide when. It might amuse me for days.

        It follows that you share at least one basis for reasoning with Mr Wright; …

        Indeed. I have said that I hold to non-contradiction and he has said that he holds to non-contradiction. We just disagree on why we hold it in common.

        …which, if I understand him correctly, is what he calls natural law.

        If the law of non-contradiction is an example of “natural law,” then it’s woefully incomplete as a method for knowing what men ought to do. As I’ve said several times now, the law of non-contradiction is a statement about “is.” It isn’t sufficient to bridge the is-ought divide. He might as well say, “2 + 2 = 4, therefore you ought not to engage in certain sexual behaviors.” Surely the emperor is wearing more than that.

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          I am making a bolder claim that mere that the Law of Non Contradiction exists. I claim that all sane men (I exclude sociopaths) by their moral intuition know it is wrong to be unreasonable, to be dishonest, to lie and to be lied to. I claim that this is not an expression of their personal and arbitrary preferences, even if they just so happen to have personal preferences in line with this. I claim that a man who makes an excuse or a justification for dishonesty or unreasonableness tacitly recognizes by that the duty exists: one does not make an excuse for preferring blondes to brunettes, but one does make excuses for preferring dishonesty to honesty.

          I also claim there is no way to bridge the is-ought divide. If I were talking to a robot, a creature that merely “was” but which had no “ought” nothing it should and should not do, I could not make the argument I make to wrf3. I could not say, “by asking me a question you are making a moral demand which you have a right to make” because the robot cannot ask questions. It can report the psychological fact that curiosity exists in its positronic brain, but if the robot lacked a moral sense, lacked life, lacked self-animation, the existence of curiosity could not be linked to a motive to ask an honest question, and this act could also not be linked in its brain to a moral demand that a philosopher answer his questions respectfully and honestly.

          The problem is that wrtf3 does not notice (and perhaps cannot be made to notice) the nature and character of his own acts. His philosophy requires him to pretend that moral imperatives do not exist, except, perhaps, as positive law, or perhaps disguised as a desire to survive and prosper. He is pretending he is like the robot, so his philosophy allows him to notice the material fact that his curiosity exists, or life exists, or philosophy exists, but he cannot take the step of noticing that curiosity imposes (an admittedly very weak) moral duty on the men around him and on himself, philosophy imposes stronger duties, life imposes very strong duties. It is morally wrong to live without wonder and without curiosity, for it is a type of waste; but it is much more morally wrong to murder wantonly.

          I do not feel the need to bridge the is-ought divide because robots with brains are fictional. There is no rational creature in this or any possible universe who lacks a moral nature, an ability to perceive moral principles, and to deduce at least some moral imperatives therefrom. Any child who shouts “that’s not fair” may be mistaken, because he is a child, as to whether whatever irks him is indeed not fair, but neither he nor the parent who hears him can doubt that fairness does exist and does make a moral claim on a rational being.

          Whether or not this claim is overwhelmed by another moral claim, for example, the duty to respect one’s elders or maintain discipline in a family, ah, that is another question. But it would be a moral question: a fair man would weigh the child’s claim against the need to teach the child obedience, not against an empirical measurement, an aesthetic preference, a geometric proof, or any other type of reasoning issuing from any other type of discipline.

          But wrf3 claims not to be convinced that any such universal principles exist at all, even though he himself relies on them to make his claim.

          In order to avoid this whole moral dimension of the universe wrf3 is forced to resort to the very unconvincing, and, if I may be rude, the very stupid rhetorical tactic of pretending that he has spent three days without ANY FINAL OR FORMAL CAUSE WHATSOEVER debating the deepest question of philosophy with me, that to him it is merely a joke, a lark, an idle pastime to amuse his hours.

          In this regard, he uses sarcasm, flippancy, the pose of nonchalance both to insult the topic being discussed, avoid it seriousness, and to protect himself from wounds to his ego: he insults both himself and me by pretending that nothing he says or I say really matters. It is all just diversion and trifles.

          Such an attitude, if unchecked, is crippling to the mental integrity and moral character. Imagine if a man asked your daughter’s hand in marriage, but insisted on putting on a great and insincere show that she did not matter much to him, and he did not really care if you answered yea or nay, and it was all just a flip joke anyway. No man who loves his daughter could be anything but gravely offended, but it once again violates a universal moral commandment to treat serious things flippantly. How then is it for a philosopher, who loves wisdom, to hear a fool pretend to be proud of folly, discussing one of the world’s most profound questions, only because his crippling and emasculating philosophy, relativism, nihilism, prevents him from admitting the sober moral purpose and strict rules that surround the act of reasoning and speculation on such profound topics.

          He dare not admit he has a duty to discover the truth of this matter, and a duty to be as honest and rigorously objective and rational as he can be.

          • Comment by wrf3:

            I am making a bolder claim that mere that the Law of Non Contradiction exists. I claim that all sane men (I exclude sociopaths) by their moral intuition know it is wrong to be unreasonable, to be dishonest, to lie and to be lied to.

            I know what your claims are. The problem is that your second claim is a tautology and, therefore, worthless. Let’s do an analysis of your second claim:

            Moral behavior is intrinsically/intuitively known to sane men. But what is sanity? Why, adherence to moral behavior.

            Do you see the circularity?

            I am reminded of this delightful picture. By your reasoning, one of the little girls is obviously dishonest or a sociopath. Now, I’m pretty sure you won’t claim that for a sample size of five, but that’s what you’re doing when the sample size gets much, much larger. For you, morality is a numbers game. You will, of course, say that it isn’t, but given your next claim, it has to be.

            I also claim there is no way to bridge the is-ought divide.

            So, on the one hand, you claim that the law of non-contradiction is (which is true), but then you try to use it to show how men ought to behave, in direct contradiction of your claim that you can’t go from is to ought.

            And that’s why I suspect you think I’m dishonest. You have been trying to get me to acknowledge the “is” (which I do) and, from that, to acknowledge the “ought”, which I have refused to do. Your brain instinctively bridges the is-ought barrier but because I won’t do what your brain automatically does, you have to conclude that I’m of poor moral character.

            What is actually the case is that I’m trying to get you to see if you can defend your instincts.After all, when it comes to certain matters of sexual morality, your brain bridges the is-ought gap one way and Dr. Andreassen’s another. Each of you vehemently complains that the other is wrong, but all you’re doing is saying “my brain is wired better than yours”, but you have no way to define “better” externally to either of you.But there is a way to bridge the is-ought gap and since I actually have worked on artificial intelligence software, your next claim suits my purposes exactly.

            If I were talking to a robot, a creature that merely “was” but which had no “ought” nothing it should and should not do, I could not make the argument I make to wrf3.

            But robots (hereafter I will use the term AIs) do have oughts. Every computer program, from the simplest to the most complex, embodies oughts. In the AI field, they are called “goals”. The goal of the chess program is to win at chess. The goal of the payroll program is to produce paychecks. Once a goal exists, oughts are a matter of searching the particular problem’s state space to reach the goal. The payroll program has an extremely small state space: read employee information, compute pay, issue paycheck. The search space of the chess program is mind-boggingly large. The search space of the human brain is larger still.

            I could not say, “by asking me a question you are making a moral demand which you have a right to make”

            Sure you could. You can always ask; the question is whether or not you understand why the moral obligation exists. Our brains are goal-seeking engines. Our moral sense is the introspection of the goal-seeking process. We deem paths that lead to a goal good and paths that lead away from a goal to be bad. Without going into the deals of searching large state spaces, common goals can lead to common solutions. The law of non-contradiction is a requirement for meaningful communiction. So if your goal is to communicate, you have to use it. If your goal is to talk to yourself, you’re done. If your goal is to talk with someone else then that person also has to cooperate toward that goal, which means they will have to adopt TLNC. If that person doesn’t want to communicate with you, then they don’t. That’s how moral obligations arise — through cooperation toward common goals.

            • Comment by John C Wright:

              You put me in the awkward position both of saying manifestly false things about what I have said, making me wish to correct you, and of announcing that you and I have no duty to be honest with each other, making me not wish to talk to you at all.

              Let me merely warn any other readers of this nonsense that wrf3 is misunderstanding or misrepresenting the position he is arguing against. I leave the task to others willing to throw pearls before swine to correct him. His unwillingness to admit that he needs to be honest with me, or me with him, excuses me from the chore.

            • Comment by The OFloinn:

              Moral behavior is intrinsically/intuitively known to sane men. But what is sanity? Why, adherence to moral behavior.

              Do you see the circularity?

              1. Where do you get that definition of sanity? Where in Mr. Wright’s post or replies has he said that sanity is adherence to moral behavior?

              2. Sanity comes from L. sanitas, “health,” from sanus “healthy.” The meaning “soundness of mind” is first attested c.1600. It thus means a mind that is healthy, in the sense that its rational faculties are unimpaired. Your comment is thus translated:
              Moral behavior is intrinsically/intuitively known to sane men. But what is sanity? Why, a mind whose rational faculties are unimpaired. Do you see the circularity?
              To which the evident answer is “No.”

              • Comment by wrf3:

                Where do you get that definition of sanity? Where in Mr. Wright’s post or replies has he said that sanity is adherence to moral behavior?

                “I am talking about the tacit moral intuitions upon which all sane men rely when they make moral decisions, or debate them.”, August 23, 2012 at 4:35 pm

                “I claim that all sane men (I exclude sociopaths) by their moral intuition know it is wrong to be unreasonable, to be dishonest, to lie and to be lied to.”, August 25, 2012 at 2:51 am

                Your comment is thus translated:
                Moral behavior is intrinsically/intuitively known to sane men. But what is sanity? Why, a mind whose rational faculties are unimpaired.

                And how do you know that their rational faculties are unimpaired? Why, by how they behave, i.e. conform to your expectations of morality.

                Remember, John used the words “tacit” and “intuition”. This entire post consists of me asking John for his spoken calculations and him calling me all sorts of names instead of answering the question. His response has always been that men of sound moral nature just somehow know what it is and that I’m dishonest for disagreeing.

                • Comment by The OFloinn:

                  Question: Where do you get that definition of sanity? Where in Mr. Wright’s post or replies has he said that sanity is adherence to moral behavior?

                  Quoting Mr. Wright:“I am talking about the tacit moral intuitions upon which all sane men rely when they make moral decisions, or debate them.”, August 23, 2012 at 4:35 pm

                  “I claim that all sane men (I exclude sociopaths) by their moral intuition know it is wrong to be unreasonable, to be dishonest, to lie and to be lied to.”, August 25, 2012 at 2:51 am

                  You are adding 1+1 and getting 3.

                  That all sane men know certain moral truths by “intuition” does not imply that discovering these moral truths is the definition of sanity.

                  No wonder you have this all vermischt.

                  Try this for a parallel:
                  “I am talking about the tacit bodily intuitions upon which all healthy men rely when they perform physical feats.”

                  “I claim that all healthy men by their physical intuition know it is wrong to attempt leaping higher than they are able, running too fast for their condition, trying to lift weights too heavy for them.”

                  Now while it is true that reaching rational decisions over one’s acts is evidence of sanity — “reason rules acts” is pretty definitional for natural law — this is more in line with performing physical feats as evidence of bodily robustness. It isn’t definitional, even when it is evidential. There are other ways to determine sanity of mind and/or health of body.

                  • Comment by wrf3:

                    That all sane men know certain moral truths by “intuition” does not imply that discovering these moral truths is the definition of sanity.

                    John’s definition didn’t say “discover” but, rather, adhere to. And this has to be so in John’s formulation, because he also said that you can’t discover moral truths, since the is-ought gap can’t be bridged.

                    Try this for a parallel:
                    “I am talking about the tacit bodily intuitions upon which all healthy men rely when they perform physical feats.”

                    “I claim that all healthy men by their physical intuition know it is wrong to attempt leaping higher than they are able, running too fast for their condition, trying to lift weights too heavy for them.”

                    You’re confusing “futile” with “wrong”, that is, you’re implicitly trying to bridge the is-ought gap without showing how that can be done. After all, didn’t Michelangelo say, “The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”

                    Now while it is true that reaching rational decisions over one’s acts is evidence of sanity — “reason rules acts” is pretty definitional for natural law — this is more in line with performing physical feats as evidence of bodily robustness. It isn’t definitional, even when it is evidential. There are other ways to determine sanity of mind and/or health of body.

                    Which requires you to bridge the is-ought gap.

                    • Comment by The OFloinn:

                      “I claim that all healthy men by their physical intuition know it is wrong to attempt leaping higher than they are able, running too fast for their condition, trying to lift weights too heavy for them.”

                      You’re confusing “futile” with “wrong”

                      Trying to lift more weight than you can handle is bad for you. It can lead to strain and other injuries to the bodily part of a human being. No moral opprobrium applies to a bad scientist or a bad artist like it does to a coward or a thief, but we can see the shadow of the moral in the physical.

                      Which requires you to bridge the is-ought gap.

                      What gap is that? On which metaphysic is it based? See this article for details: http://www.davidsoderberg.co.uk/
                      (click ARTICLES, go to
                      39. ‘The Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Law’, in H. Zaborowski (ed.) Natural Moral Law in Contemporary Society

                • Comment by John C Wright:

                  I answered the question three and four times. I said I would answering once you evaded my question, which was an honest question, when I asked you whether I had a duty to be honest to you. You did, in fact, not answer, but instead talked about Jesus, who, as I recall, warned against casting pearls before swine.

                  But I am patient. Let me try again:

                  Was it wrong of me to call you names, if that amused me? Was it illogical? If it was, by what axioms was it illogical?

                  Before you answer, I remind you that you and I have no contract, no explicit legally binding agreement not to call each other names. So if I did not violate any positive law by so doing, what law did I violate?

                  (A note my readers: I predict, albeit I would be delighted to be proved wrong, that he will not answer. This is because, unless he changes his ground, he cannot. Instead he will again attack my character, again say that I am wronged him, and again not identify the source of that alleged wrong, nor say on what grounds he has standing to complain, nor under what law he has a right to complain, nor what law I allegedly violated. If he does that, I move that you, dear readers, dismiss his complaint in the jury of your minds on the grounds that he has failed to state a cause for which any remedy at philosophy exists.)

            • Comment by Patrick:

              “Moral behavior is intrinsically/intuitively known to sane men. But what is sanity? Why, adherence to moral behavior.”

              I bet you dazzled them in Introduction to Philosophy.

              Seriously, wrf3 – read that again. Is that REALLY what people mean when by the term ‘sanity’?

              • Comment by John C Wright:

                More to the point, is that what *I* meant by sanity? I did read the famous McNoughton case in law school you know, where it was established as a principle of English Common Law that if at the time of committing the act, the accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing or, if he did know it, that he did not know what he was doing was wrong, then he was not liable for legal penalty.

                wrf3 shows his fundamental weakness for sophistry by arguing that I said, in effect, that all sinful men are insane. Had I said that, it would indeed be a paradox, since to sin requires the capacity of reason, which is why we do not hold children before they can talk or beasts to be sinful even when they are ill behaved.

                Likewise, if we lived in a universe where all moral reasoning was as he describes it (if I understand him, which I am not sure I do), all moral reasoning would be based on what can be logically deduced between two men who share a shared purpose arbitrarily assumed.

                In such a universe, no possible legal reasoning or jurisprudence would be possible. Any accused would merely claim not to share the communal purpose, and whatever rights or violations of rights the courts of law otherwise would attempt to vindicate, they could not philosophically justify. In that universe, the courts would be reduced to claiming might makes right: a paradox of it own, by the way. If might made right there were be no courts of law and no need for them, since any moral dispute would be resolved by combat.

  16. Comment by Gian:

    Moral truths, Moral axioms and perils of System-makers

    Morals truths such as “Do not steal”, “do not murder” etc are known intuitively. I hope all will agree.

    The system-makers infer their axioms from these intuitive truths. The axioms like
    “I own myself” or “man is a rational animal”.

    These axioms are less certain than the intuitive moral truths since the axioms are inferred from the intuitive truths using reason that is fallible.

    Thus “I own myself” is not universally agreed upon. It is not a truism but a dogma (meaning a disputed proposition).

    The axiom “man is a rational animal” has been disputed too-by evolutionists and other social scientists.

    In short, moral truths are given but moral axioms are man-made efforts at system-making, a rationalist enterprise that needs to be undertaken with great care and caution.

    • Comment by The OFloinn:

      Morals truths such as “Do not steal”, “do not murder” etc are known intuitively. I hope all will agree.

      Yet the Athenians spoke their own truth just before their unprovoked attack upon and murder of the Melians: “The strong take what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” Theft and murder are an offense to human nature, and so naturally wrong; but evidently not intuitive enough for the Athenians to pick up on it. Now, “Do not steal from me” and “Do not murder me” are things that are intuitively obvious; but one needs a sense of charity to extend it to non-relatives, other cities, or barbarians.

      Thus “I own myself” is not universally agreed upon.

      Right. It is a form of slavery. You cannot own a human being.

      “man is a rational animal” has been disputed too-by evolutionists and other social scientists.

      They are wrong, of course. And what exactly is a social “scientist”?

      • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

        Theft and murder are an offense to human nature, and so naturally wrong; but evidently not intuitive enough for the Athenians to pick up on it.

        The Athenians did not say their actions weren’t wrong. They said they were going to do them anyway, justice be damned.

    • Comment by Patrick:

      “Morals truths such as “Do not steal”, “do not murder” etc are known intuitively.”

      I totally think this is false, actually, if by ‘intuitively’ you mean ‘without having to think about it’.

  17. Comment by Gian:

    Mr Wright,
    You might have made it clear that

    1) Natural Law is not the same as the Objective Moral Law
    2) Natural Law is the set of deductions from the axiom “man is a rational animal”

    Thus, a person can maintain the existence of Objective Moral Law but disbelieve that
    Natural Law tells us very much about it.
    Eg. Muslims and Hindus believe in Objective moral laws but do not believe in Natural Law (which is a Western concept in general and Catholic concept in particular).
    They believe that all moral laws are revealed. Thus your opponents are not merely subjectivists and nihilists but very conservative Hindus and Muslims as well.

    Now polygamy is permitted under Muslim revelation but you say that (Catholic) Natural Law prohibits it. Even for Catholics, some moral laws may be a matter of revelation and not reason (polygamy may lie here) If all societies were deluded as to the wrongness of slavery till 1865 then perhaps we may be wrong concerning other matters such as homosexual marriage. Who can say?

    • Comment by Andrew Brew:

      All societies were not so deluded – only the ones outside Christendom, and the “modern” ones that started the abandonment of Christianity to ape the ancients. We have a solid fifteen centuries or so of effective opposition to slavery to keep hold of, and a much longer time of knowing what marriage is.

      Natural law is not, of course, Catholic. It may be mostly Catholics who talk about it nowadays, but that is another matter. Do you notice how TOF, when he gives his explanations of “Nature”, does it without reference to the CCC?

      • Comment by Sylvie D. Rousseau:

        Moderns fail to ape the ancients.
        Some of them declare they want to imitate the ancients, but what they do is try and introduce novelties that do not fit in the landscape, and they try and, alas, succeed, to destroy or impeach the use of rational philosophical bases. The unavowed purpose is, of course, to discredit the Catholic Church (they are aided efficiently also by bad Catholic theologians and philosophers), the guardian of the common philosophy of humanity, Aristotelico-Thomism.

        • Comment by Andrew Brew:

          They fail, certainly. I was unclear in my haste. The moderns I was referring to are the humanists of the sixteenth century, whose desire to follow classical models was very selective. One of the ancient ways they did adopt, though, was to re-introduce the keeping of slaves. I was responding specifically to Gian’s quaint notion that everybody before 1865 thought slavery was just fine.

          • Comment by Sylvie D. Rousseau:

            I agree the selective pick was not bad in art and architecture, but was questionable in philosophy and morals, which is what I had in mind, hence the parenthesis about bad theologians and philosophers.

      • Comment by Mary:

        1

        You said ‘The world is going back to Paganism’.
        Oh bright Vision! I saw our dynasty in the bar of the House
        Spill from their tumblers a libation to the Erinyes,
        And Leavis with Lord Russell wreathed in flowers, heralded with flutes,
        Leading white bulls to the cathedral of the solemn Muses
        To pay where due the glory of their latest theorem.
        Hestia’s fire in every flat, rekindled, burned before
        The Lardergods. Unmarried daughters with obedient hands
        Tended it By the hearth the white-armd venerable mother
        Domum servabat, lanam faciebat. at the hour
        Of sacrifice their brothers came, silent, corrected, grave
        Before their elders; on their downy cheeks easily the blush
        Arose (it is the mark of freemen’s children) as they trooped,
        Gleaming with oil, demurely home from the palaestra or the dance.
        Walk carefully, do not wake the envy of the happy gods,
        Shun Hubris. The middle of the road, the middle sort of men,
        Are best. Aidos surpasses gold. Reverence for the aged
        Is wholesome as seasonable rain, and for a man to die
        Defending the city in battle is a harmonious thing.
        Thus with magistral hand the Puritan Sophrosune
        Cooled and schooled and tempered our uneasy motions;
        Heathendom came again, the circumspection and the holy fears …
        You said it. Did you mean it? Oh inordinate liar, stop.

        2

        Or did you mean another kind of heathenry?
        Think, then, that under heaven-roof the little disc of the earth,
        Fortified Midgard, lies encircled by the ravening Worm.
        Over its icy bastions faces of giant and troll
        Look in, ready to invade it. The Wolf, admittedly, is bound;
        But the bond wil1 break, the Beast run free. The weary gods,
        Scarred with old wounds the one-eyed Odin, Tyr who has lost a hand,
        Will limp to their stations for the Last defence. Make it your hope
        To be counted worthy on that day to stand beside them;
        For the end of man is to partake of their defeat and die
        His second, final death in good company. The stupid, strong
        Unteachable monsters are certain to be victorious at last,
        And every man of decent blood is on the losing side.
        Take as your model the tall women with yellow hair in plaits
        Who walked back into burning houses to die with men,
        Or him who as the death spear entered into his vitals
        Made critical comments on its workmanship and aim.
        Are these the Pagans you spoke of? Know your betters and crouch, dogs;
        You that have Vichy water in your veins and worship the event
        Your goddess History (whom your fathers called the strumpet Fortune).

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      “Mr Wright, You might have made it clear that 1) Natural Law is not the same as the Objective Moral Law (2) Natural Law is the set of deductions from the axiom “man is a rational animal”

      Please quote back to me the exact words where I said that, or, if you are offering this as an inevitable deduction from what I did say, quote what I said and give your steps of such a deduction.

      I am weary of your baffling leaps from one disconnected thought to another, and at your inability to avoid strawman arguments. To my recollection, you have not once correctly identified a position I hold or repeated back anything I have actually said.

      When I state a position I hold, I assume something in your imagination brings to your mind (in a stream of consciousness style free-association) some other position, one I do not hold; and you argue against this non-position as if expecting me either to understand it or defend it.

      Usually the position is simply some unrelated matter, but in this case it happens to be the opposite of what I believe.

      The short answer is no, I have said nothing about Natural Law other than that it exists, and that it is the same as the Objective Moral Law.

      Expect no other replies from me on this or any other topic until you can amend this behavior of yours. I don’t know what you want of me. I am not going to discuss or defend positions you arbitrarily and without consulting me assign to me.

      • Comment by Gian:

        Your exact words
        “I have said nothing about Natural Law other than that it exists, and that it is the same as the Objective Moral Law.”

        And this is what I said
        “You might have made it clear that 1) Natural Law is not the same as the Objective Moral Law ”

        That is, you did not make it clear and now I realize that you are still holding to what I think as a wrong position. I did think that you agreed with TOF when he clarified your position as

        “our host … says that moral law is a deduction from human nature and nature of reality.

        No, he is saying (along with St. Paul, Augustine, Thomas, et al.) that the Natural Law is deducible from human nature (just as the natural laws of physics are deducible from the natures of inanimate bodies). This is not the whole of the moral law — TOF (the “he” being you).

  18. Comment by wrf3:

    On August 24, 2012 at 11:40 am, John wrote:

    Except that my words cannot bear the interpretation you put on them. I did not say “I hold it to be self evident that life is better than death” I said “The principle of holding life better than death, if you present it to me as a principle, is presented as an axiom.”

    Fine. If it isn’t an axiom, a self-evident truth, that life is better than death, then how do you go about demonstrating it from nature? If you’re going to present it as something all men should hold as a good, you’re going to have to do better than “I hold to it”, or “the people I think honest and sane believe it, while dishonest and defective people do not.”

    [wrf3]“But we all know that there are things that are claimed to be self-evident that depend on which group of individuals one talks to.”

    You are doing here the selfsame thing you accuse me of: stating your personal preference as a universal. We do not all know any such thing.

    Sure we do. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” How many other nations believe this? How many atheists believe that “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…”? How man other nations hold that rights are unalienable instead of granted by the state? And so on.

    A statement is self evident when the statement testifies on its own behalf to the truth of its subject: “I think, therefore I am” is a formal and logical statement, not an expression of personal preference. It is also self evident, since no one who neither think nor exists could make such a statement.

    For the umpteenth time, “ergo cogito sum” is a statement about “is”. “I exist” is a different type of claim from “you ought to exist.” You keep using self-evident statements about “is” to try to make the case for statemens about “ought”. You can’t do that without giving the warrant for bridging the is-ought gap. “It’s evident to me that you ought to do that” is precisely the problem that natural law is supposed to address. But all that has done is to repeatedly claim that it can do this, but it hasn’t actually been done.

  19. Comment by wrf3:

    On August 24, 2012 at 11:34 am, John wrote:

    …I mean that you and I both, as well as wrf3, actually hold it to be an lapse of ethics when one is dishonest.

    But do you have the same reasons as I do as to why this is the case? Natural law says that there must be a proof from nature that this is so. All I’m asking is that this be demonstrated. “Everybody knows you shouldn’t lie” is simply wishful thinking. One does not need to teach one’s children how to lie. In fact, the opposite is true.

    He has implied that he does not hold such a thing to be a moral lapse but merely an arbitrary personal preference (like preferring blondes to brunettes) to prefer honesty to dishonesty.

    Let’s be clear: I am asking for the natural law proof of why it’s a moral lapse. The reason “I think something to be immoral” is not sufficient warrant as to why you should think it to be immoral. Closer to home, the reason why you think certain sexual activity to be immoral certainly hasn’t swayed Dr. Andreassen one bit (and vice versa). Ergo, “I think you ought to do x” is not a sufficient warrant for that person to agree with you.

    My assertion is that even if he would prefer he be lied to during a conversation, or have his honest questions not honestly answered, or even if he stoically would take no personal nor emotional offense should that happen, nonetheless his reason would inform him that I do him a moral wrong, I break a small but real moral imperative, if I do not answer honestly or rationally when called upon to do so.

    You would break my moral imperative. What makes my moral imperative yours?

    … I assert this not because I can read his mind, but because he is a rational creature, and there are some truths no rational creatures can honestly hold in honest doubt: and that there is a duty on all rational creatures to be honest is one of them.

    And this is where I think you’ve left a few steps out of the proof. It’s as if you’ve gone from “1+1=2″ therefore “Fermat’s last theorem is true.” More on this, later.

  20. Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

    Ran out of nesting space, continuing here.

    I said:

    What on Earth is the purpose of arguing with someone who doesn’t accept non-contradiction?

    and Mr Wright responded

    Here we differ, at least slightly. I hold it to be a moral wrong to speak or think in defiance of the law of non-contradiction.

    I don’t think we differ; we have got hold of different bits of the same beast. I agree that there is a moral duty to avoid contradiction; it follows from the moral duty to pursue truth. In addition, arguing with a contradictory system is pointless. Either of these would be sufficient by itself. I must admit that the pointlessness occurred to me before the moral argument, so we may have a difference of emphasis; but not, I think, one of substance.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      “I agree that there is a moral duty to avoid contradiction; it follows from the moral duty to pursue truth.”

      That is very well said. A great deal of my poor opinion of you has been banished by that one sentence.

      “In addition, arguing with a contradictory system is pointless.”

      Also very well said. Again you win back admiration of mine.

      Here now are three points on which we can agree. If only wrf3 were being serious, he would be convinced by this empirical proof of the existence of natural law. (Of course, he was not being serious, and of course, even had he been serious, his conviction would nonetheless be faulty, for the matter is not one which can be proved empirically. One does not discover whether or not mathematics is real by polling mathematicians and Hottentots and seeing how many agree with Newton and Leibniz.)

  21. Comment by wrf3:

    This is a combined reply to John’s posts at August 26, 2012 at 1:23 am and August 26, 2012 at 1:05 am. The reversed order is useful as one flows into another.

    … I asked you whether I had a duty to be honest to you. You did, in fact, not answer, but instead talked about Jesus, who, as I recall, warned against casting pearls before swine.

    Again, let me refresh your memory. You are making the claim that natural law is discoverable by reason and can be used to determine how men ought to behave. It is therefore incumbent on you to prove your case. Imagine my surprise when, instead of doing so, you kept asking me to make your case for you. That’s like asking a defense attorney to prove that his client is guilty. I wasn’t going to do it.

    But now I understand why it is so important to you that I agree with you. We use “law” in two ways: as descriptions of “is” and as descriptions of “ought”. The law of non-contradiction is a description of “is”-ness. E=mc2 is likewise about “is”. But “the speed limit is 35″ is a description of “ought”, as is “we have a duty to be honest to one another”. If “natural law” is to describe how people ought to behave, it has to be able to bridge the is-ought gap. On the one hand, you’ve stated that this cannot be done. On the other hand, the brain does it all the time. That’s its primary job.

    Because you can’t bridge the is-ought gap, your formulation of natural law has to appeal to the behavior of other people. Your brain goes from is-to-ought one way and it is your expectation that my brain works the exact same way. For your theory of natural law to be correct, I have to agree with you. Since I didn’t — because I was hoping that natural law theory had more to it than a numbers game and that you would demonstrate it — I wasn’t going to answer you. Hence the name calling. I greatly frustrated you because I wasn’t going to play your game. So that makes me swine.

    But now that I think I thoroughly understand your position, I’m going to do the job you should have done from the beginning.

    Was it wrong of me to call you names, if that amused me? Was it illogical? If it was, by what axioms was it illogical?

    Before you answer, I remind you that you and I have no contract, no explicit legally binding agreement not to call each other names. So if I did not violate any positive law by so doing, what law did I violate?

    This idea of a contract is important. Do John and I have an explicit contract between us to not call one another names or to be honest with each other? No, we don’t.

    As an aside, even though we don’t have a formal contract for honesty and polite behavior, I told John that I would be honest with him. And I have been. I also noted that he has a contract with Jesus for certain behavior. If Jesus demands that he be honest in his dealings, and I say that I will be honest with him, then that should have been sufficient to establish honest relations between us. But the moment that I appealed to Jesus, I injected the supernatural into a discussion of natural law. And because I wouldn’t support his notion of natural law, which I consider to be very flawed, I’m all sorts of nasty things.

    If John and I don’t have an explicit contract for honesty between us, do we have an implicit contract? Yes, we do. What follows is the natural law explanation for how it arises. It makes use of computer science, game theory, and evolutionary biology.

    Our brains are goal-seeking engines. We can use games to show how this works. The game of tic-tac-toe has the goal of getting three x’s or three o’s in a row. It’s a simple game and the “game space” (the set of all possible moves) is small enough that it can be analyzed so that each player can know the moves they ought to make to reach their goal.

    Chess has an even larger state space. It is so large that today’s computers cannot exhaustively search it to determine optimal ways to play. The Japanese game of Go is larger still, and life dwarfs both of those.

    We know, from computer science, that we have to develop “heuristics” (i.e. “good guesses”) for games that have large state spaces. The brain is no different. Unlike chess, which is a game with one goal, if life is taken as a goal for human behavior, then we have to search for food, shelter, mates, and so on. How do notions of honesty arise from this?

    Game theory gives us the answer in the form of the “iterated prisoner’s dilemma”. (See Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation). For species that have to cooperate to survive (and our sexuality imposes cooperation at the most fundamental level), cooperation is a strategy the produces better results than defection.

    It’s more complex than this; for example, there was a recent study that showed that cooperation, for the sake of cooperation, often leads to a group cooperating with the least capable members of a group, leading to a race to the bottom. But what “men ought to do” arises from the goals that men choose, and once a goal is chosen, computer science and game theory can determine the “oughts”.

    In writing his post, John had the goal of explaining and defending natural law. I had the goal of trying to understand his position and, if possible, poke holes in it. That required that I defect in some cases (when I wouldn’t answer his question) and cooperate in all others.

    (A note [to] my readers: I predict, albeit I would be delighted to be proved wrong, that he will not answer.

    Don’t quit your day job. And while that may be taken as a wise-ass response (which is, in fact, one aspect that I do intend), I also mean it sincerely as I am quite enjoying Count To A Trillion.

    There’s a whole lot more that can be said, but I need a nap.

    • Comment by Patrick:

      You should have taken your nap before you started writing this. This is a non-answer.

      You just inveighed against John for being a meanie, rambled about game theory for a few paragraphs, and, again, declared victory. Incorrigible.

      “That required that I defect in some cases (when I wouldn’t answer his question) and cooperate in all others.”

      What’s it called in game theory when you act like a blowhard on the internet for three days straight, talking about things you demonstrably don’t understand, and discrediting yourself in the opinions of a dozen or so strangers?

      Wrf3, you’ve done nothing recognizable as philosophy here. I don’t mean to sound so hard on you, but you’ve done very poorly in raising an objection on the topic that anyone reading could evaluate. If you intended to do more than simply register your disbelief-and-how-dare-you’s and lecture us on a pet topic on your own privileged terms, you didn’t get around to it. Almost nobody here (somebody speak up) has any confidence that you’ve understood even the basics of the theory or even how to argue for or against it. There seems no point in continuing.

    • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

      We know, from computer science, that we have to develop “heuristics” (i.e. “good guesses”) for games that have large state spaces.

      No we don’t. We know that heuristics are often a fruitful way to approach problems we can’t solve by brute force. It doesn’t follow that no brute-force solution will ever be possible, much less that there cannot be an analytic solution produced by insight and deduction. After all, there was a time when the finest philosophers in the land could not solve second-degree equations in full generality, but could only give heuristics – even if we restrict them to those with two real solutions. We do make progress, even on mathematical problems.

    • Comment by Sylvie D. Rousseau:

      On the “is-ought” gap

      wrf3 writes on August 26, 2012 at 3:51 pm :
      “If “natural law” is to describe how people ought to behave, it has to be able to bridge the is-ought gap.”

      Natural law is not a “description”, it is built in every being. In free-willed beings it is built in our conscience and it is perceived (not deduced) as the sense of right and wrong and the moral obligation to do good and avoid evil. In moral philosophy, “do good and avoid evil” is the first axiom, the first self-evident principle of practical – as opposed to speculative – reason.

      What you call the “is-ought gap” is imperfection or evil. Created beings are a mix of potentiality and actuality, thus imperfection is tied to the fact they are creatures. In the case of free-willed beings, there is also the evil of sin, the fact they can do intrinsically and objectively wrong acts voluntarily.

      In speculative reason there is no gap between “is” (ontology) and “ought” (moral philosophy), the axioms of morality flowing from the axioms of ontology. Moral philosophy can be studied before ontology, but to grasp the first four axioms of ontology — identity or non-contradiction, sufficient reason, finality, and efficient causality — will make it easier to get a truly rational hold on morality. (Of course, there is no need to be a philosopher to tell right from wrong and to act morally. A sound education in childhood and adolescence is sufficient.)

      The “is-ought” gap, as you put it, cannot obviously be bridged by natural law itself: nature has been wounded, changed by sin. It can only be redeemed in the supernatural order by the Son of God’s sacrifice. Every time we open the unnatural gap of sin, which is in fact tearing down and subtracting something to the Being in some way, the consequences spread to all creatures in this world. If we then repent, ask for forgiveness and repair or compensate for the consequences within our reach, Christ’s grace heals the breach in the invisible, again for all creatures. Certain consequences still remain and will not be compensated until the end of times, but this, also, is of use in the greater plan if we offer it up to Christ to participate in his sufferings for the salvation of the multitude.

      • Comment by The OFloinn:

        As I recollect, the so-called “is-ought gap” was the product of modern (i.e., faulty) philosophy.

        • Comment by Sylvie D. Rousseau:

          I don’t doubt it is a modern and faulty term. It looks like a narrowing and reduction of the concept of evil, no doubt in the purpose of eliminating this last term, while keeping some replacement. I was making an effort, in the sense of what Maritain suggested, to find what could correspond to the general idea in Thomism. What do you think?

  22. Comment by robertjwizard:

    Is – ought gap.

    Man, like the rest of existence is something definite and something knowable. We have the means of grasping what man is and the nature of the world he lives in. That tells us what he ought to do. What man ought to do is given by what he is.

    It is no more a technical matter than telling a plant (if he should deign to speak to us) when he asks, “what is it I should do as the being I am?” you tell him, “You are a plant! Sink you roots into the ground – find water! Turn your leaves to the sun!”

    There is no gap.

    The issue of goals is not part of the problem at all, it is beside the point. Man has no automatic goals save for the vegetative ones nature instilled in him for sustenance. Goals are particular – whatever goal one is pursuing, his nature and the demands of reality dictate what he ought to do regardless of the goal. Honesty, if it be an ought, applies no matter the concrete. Naturally his nature also determines what goals are legitimate and what are not.

    Man does not become not-man depending on the goal, nor man1, man2, man3, his nature is immutable.

    OFloinn is right, the ought-is gap is a modern problem of philosophy. And, like most problems of modern philosophy it is easily discarded.

  23. Comment by wrf3:

    And suppose the day called Tuesday was made up of eighteen notes of music and a can of dogfood, rather than made up of hours and minutes.

    While this might be a nice rhetorical flourish, it isn’t an accurate statement of the disagreement. We know that d=rt (distance equals rate multiplied by time). Tuesday is one of seven divisions of a week, which is a division of a month, which comprise a year, which is the time it takes the earth to revolve around the sun. Tuesday could be made up of 18 notes of music, if the notes were of the right duration. The can of dogfood is superfluous.

    Your rhetoric presupposes that you know what thought is and that what you suppose thought to be can’t be translated into material units. But that’s exactly the subject of the disagreement. You don’t just get to declare, “I win.”

    When eliminative materialists utter total nonsense like this, saying that “states” are made of “patterns” I wish they could describe the number and weight and shape of the concepts they are using, because I have no idea to what they refer.

    Begin by reading Boolean Logic. This will give you a idea of how electrons moving through NAND gates wired in certain patterns produce a result. The key idea is that there are three basic components: electrons, NAND gates, and wires. They could be photons, NOR gates, and optic fiber. Or water, XOR/not gates, and pipes. While not strictly necessary, the follow-on post Simplifying Boolean Expressions constructed the same circuit using fewer parts. The key insight is that there is more than one way to connect wires in order to get the same result.

    The next key point, is that computers are wires, NAND gates, and electrons. Arrange the wires and NAND gates one way and you get memory. Arrange them another way and you get whatever logic circuits are desired to build the central processing unit. And so on.

    The next step is that all software is hardware. That is, for any computer program, there is any number of equivalent collection of wires and gates. We don’t do it this way, for cost reasons. We substitute memory (wires and gates) and interpreted instructions (more wires and gates) to do the same thing. In this way, changing memory is identical in concept to moving wires and gates.

    The “aha” moment comes when you realize that the act of writing software is the act of embedding part of our thoughts into hardware.

    Finally, our brains are made up of neurons. That wires, electrons, and NAND gates can simulate neurons is evident from the computer programs that do so. That neurons can simulate NAND gates is shown by, e.g. this paper.

    To defeat this argument, you have to show that there is an immaterial component to thought which, by definition, you can’t directly demonstrate. Failing that, you have to show that there is something that the brain can do that some digital circuit cannot do. I’d be happy to see your best attempt at an argument for this.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      As for your challenge: “To defeat this argument, you have to show that there is an immaterial component to thought which, by definition, you can’t directly demonstrate”

      I call as evidence this sentence you yourself have written. One of the properties it has is an if-then statement, indeed, in logic your enthymeme is called “modes ponens”. Modens ponens is immaterial, since it cannot be express in SI units; if-then is immaterial, since it is logical relation; enthymeme is immaterial, since it is a form of argument. Your sentence also contains verbs (immaterial) and nouns (immaterial) and meaning (immaterial). It has a truth value: it is either true or false. No material thing has a truth value. A rock is not true or untrue. It is heavy or light, rough or smooth, but it cannot be a truth rock.

      If there were no immaterial properties to sentences, no sentence would be a sentence, no sentence would have meaning, no sentence would have truth value, no sentence would have a logical relation to the sentences around it, and so on.

      The mere fact by itself that you wrote that sentence and intended it to be meaningful proves beyond any shadow of doubt that there is an immaterial component to thought. It refutes itself.

      As for the rest, allow me to disagree as politely as I can. Good materialists, ones who have the ability to express themselves without descending into nonsense can indeed make a logical argument. You have not.

      You have allowed yourself to argue that duration of a day like Tuesday can be expressed in units of pitch and cans of dogfood. This implies, in effect, that anything can measure anything, and ergo nothing has a nature or a fixed relationship or a substance. Brick houses can be made of raindrops as easily as rainclouds can be made of bricks, atoms can be made of intentions as easily as intentions made of atoms.

      You have asserted a meaningless statement, namely, that states of mind are “patterns” of matter.

      Your assertion implies that you (or someone) could arrange bits of matter describe or embody or be a state of mind with nothing left over and no parts unexplained.

      But you cannot even express this meaningfully.

      What you do is use an ambiguous word, one that might be interpreted to refer to material and only to material properties, or might be interpreted to refer to mental properties. That word, in this case, is pattern.

      The word “pattern” means a meaningful arrangement. Meaningfulness is not a material property. Location is a material property, but the location of all points equidistant from a center is the geometrical abstraction called a circle: it is not the letter O or the number zero until and unless some thought makes it so.

      Material properties are expressible in seven fundamental quantities: mass, length, duration, temperature, current, luminous intensity and moles of substance.

      I have pointed this out many, many, many, many times in conversations on this blog, and invited any materialist who wishes to do so to tell me the units of which any concept related to meaningfulness are measured, such as true/false, accurate/inaccurate, real/unreal, valid/invalid or any other relationship between a symbol and the thing symbolized. So far, no one has met, or even acknowledged the challenge.

      So, yes, I am allowed to declare victory in a situation like this one. I am saying something that is self-evident and you are uttering a statement that is self-refuting.

      The fundamental discussion is whether or not symbolic properties can be expressed in terms of simpler unit measurements of a fundamental material property.

      The answer is no: you seem to be unable to distinguish between something like a circuit, which can be open or shut, a material property, and the meaning which a symbol-making mind with intention, such as a human mind, assigns perhaps arbitrarily or perhaps poetically to a material sign, such as open representing a true statement and shut representing a false statement, or visa versa.

      Your argument consists of one metaphor: you metaphorize human thought to a complex clockwork or electronic calculating machine. You cannot, however, when called upon to do so, express any thought by reciting a list of the material properties of the bits of matter (ink on a page, electrons on a screen) arbitrarily assigned to represent the thought without tacitly or openly assigning a symbol to them.

      So. Let me help you. Here are the SI Base Units

      * Length: meter (metre, m)
      * Mass: kilogram (kg)
      * Time: second (s)
      * Electric current: ampere (A)
      * Thermodynamic temperature: Kelvin (K)
      * Amount of substance: mole (mol)
      * Luminous intensity: candela (CD)

      Here are some Derived SI Units:
      * Area: square meter (m2)
      * Volume: cubic meter (m3) and liter (litre, L) (1 m3 = 1000 L)
      * Frequency: Hertz (Hz, s-1)
      * Density: kilogram per cubic meter (kg/m3) or gram per mL (g/mL) (1000 kg/m3 = 1 g/mL)
      * Velocity or Speed: meter per second (m/s)
      * Angular Velocity: radian per second (rad/s)
      * Angular Displacement: radian (rad)
      * Acceleration: meter per second per second (m/s2)
      * Force: newton (N, kg . m/s2)
      * Torque:newton meter (Nm)
      * Pressure: pascal (P, N/m2)
      * Work, Energy, Heat: joule (J, N . m)
      * Power: watt (W, J/s)
      * Electric Charge: coulomb (C, A . s)
      * Potential difference: volt (V, W/A, J/C)
      * Electric Field: volt per meter or newton per coulomb (V/m, N/C)
      * Electric Resistance: ohm (Greek letter Omega, V/A)
      * Capacitance: farad (F, A . s/V)
      * Magnetic Flux: weber (Wb, V . s)
      * Inductance: Henry (H, W . s/A)
      * Magnetic Flux Density: tesla (T, Wb/m2)
      * Magnetic Field Strength: ampere per meter (A/m)
      * Entropy: joule per kelvin (J/K)
      * Specific Heat: joule per kilogram kelvin (J/(kg . K))
      * Thermal Conductivity: watt per meter kelvin (W/(m . K))
      * Radiant Intensity: watt per steradian (W/sr)

      All you have to do to win the argument is tell me the derivation of a value like truth or falsehood, valid or invalid, or any other symbolic quality. The answer should look something like this:
      * Truth value: meters per honesty squared (m/hon^2)

      • Comment by wrf3:

        You have allowed yourself to argue that duration of a day like Tuesday can be expressed in units of pitch and cans of dogfood.

        No, John, I didn’t. This is what I said: Tuesday could be made up of 18 notes of music, if the notes were of the right duration. The can of dogfood is superfluous.

        On the other hand, Tuesday is both a duration (24 hours; 86,400 seconds; ignoring considerations of leap seconds and daylight savings time) and a position in a sequence. I said that the time portion of Tuesday could be made up of 18 notes of music, if the notes were of the right duration. It doesn’t matter if it’s the sweep of a second hand or the “plink” of notes on a piano, or the tapping of a foot. Duration is duration.

        I didn’t address the position in a sequence aspect, but that could certainly be denoted by pitch. Or a can of dogfood. Sunday could be middle C; Monday could be the D above middle C; Tuesday could be the E above middle C, and so on. Or the days of the week could be C, C#, D, D#, E, F♭, F. Or they could be C, CC, CCC, CCCC. Or they could be, “3 blades of grass”, “2 smooth stones”, “one can of dog food”, … The physical things that we use to refer to other physical things is completely arbitrary. That’s why different sounds can refer to the same physical thing: “hund”, “sabacca”, “dog”.

        It would help if you would argue against what I actually say, instead of what you would like me to say.

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          “No, John, I didn’t. This is what I said: Tuesday could be made up of 18 notes of music, if the notes were of the right duration.”

          My mistake. You said that is notes were units of time rather than units of music, they could measure time, in this case, a note or group of notes lasting 24 hours. But you did not say that notes of music are not the right unit of measure for a day, since a day is not a song.

          You then insist on making the same argument again, not noticing how ridiculous you have become. No, sir, no one measures Tuesday using song notation. The common unit, duration, only measures the duration of the events, and there are properties Tuesday have by the nature of being Tuesday which makes it different from Wednesday, even if they are of the same duration, and there are properties an eighteen minute long recital of a dirge do not have in common with an eighteen long minute recital of a polka. Duration is duration, as you so tautologically say. But days of the weeks are not songs. There are properties other than duration which make musical notation, or cans of dogfood, not something to which Tuesday can be simplified.

          No sober man argues that Tuesday is measured with song notation rather than a calendar. You are arguing, in effect, that anything can measure anything, or that anything can be reduced to anything, because you are arguing that everything can be reduced to matter. You are arguing with an example. If you don’t like the example, use another.

          You are the one who said that mental states were “patterns” of matter, and you said it as if you expected someone not to point out the words you used are meaningless. Soap is velocity; honesty is mass; intelligence is heat; aeons are cupcakes; beauty is the square root of negative one. Are there any words you put together with any concern for whether or not they make sense? And by “sense” I mean mass times velocipede divided by constitutionality.

          Mental states is precisely what matter is not. Patterns are forms.

          It would help if you would argue against what I actually say, instead of what you would like me to say.

          I cannot think of a polite response to this.

          To hear oneself accused insincerely of one’s accuser’s flaws is a disorienting experience. It is like coming suddenly upon a cripple whose dismemberment is self inflicted to come across a man with no sense of shame or honor, and, instead or a real sense of humor, merely a dull flippancy used to mock things above him. In mingled pity and horror, one keeps trying not to stare at the stump where a working limb should be.

          • Comment by wrf3:

            But you did not say that notes of music are not the right unit of measure for a day, since a day is not a song.

            Yes, a day is not a song, but notes of music can certainly be a unit of measure for a day. What is the “right” unit of measure for a day? Is it seconds? Hours? Some number of quarter notes played at a certain tempo? All of these express duration, so there is no “right” measure. They are equivalent.

            No, sir, no one measures Tuesday using song notation.

            But we certainly could. “Tuesday” is both a duration and a position in an (arbitrary) sequence. I’ve already shown that the duration portion could be measured by a certain number of quarter notes played at a certain tempo. But we like shorthand, so a sequence of notes could be assigned to mean that. The position could also be described by notes, say “CDECDECDEDCDC”. Depending on context, C could also be assigned the meaning “the first item in the sequence”, C# could mean “the second item in the sequence”, D the third, and so on. So what you call “Tuesday” could certainly be “CDECDECDEDCDC D”. And we could further abbreviate it if we desired.

            You are arguing, in effect, that anything can measure anything, or that anything can be reduced to anything, because you are arguing that everything can be reduced to matter.

            I am not claiming that “anything can measure anything”. There are five fundamental units of measurement: length, mass, time, charge, and temperature. Nature expresses these through several constants, e.g. the speed of light, the gravitational constant, Planck’s constant, and so on. (see Planck Units). All I’ve done is used different expressions of duration to measure duration, and different expressions of position to define the position of an item in a sequence. But I am certainly arguing that thought can be reduced to an arrangement of these five things.

            You are the one who said that mental states were “patterns” of matter, and you said it as if you expected someone not to point out the words you used are meaningless.

            If I said, “a symphony is patterns of matter”, would you say that this is meaningless? Or would you agree that a symphony is “matter in motion in certain patterns”?

            … I cannot think of a polite response to this.

            Since you’re a professional wordsmith, I would think that an impolite response would be worth seeing, even if only for the entertainment value.

            • Comment by robertjwizard:

              No, sir, no one measures Tuesday using song notation.
              But we certainly could.

              No we couldn’t. First this would have been metaphysically impossible before the advent of looped “music”. Who would have been making these before recorded music? An immortal robot that never rests, never sleeps? Who would have turned over the record if it were recorded?

              To claim that you could use CDA (or any combo) is merely replacing the tick-tock-tick with Do-Re-La which means you have made absolutely no point at all.

            • Comment by John C Wright:

              What is the “right” unit of measure for a day? Is it seconds? Hours? Some number of quarter notes played at a certain tempo? All of these express duration, so there is no “right” measure.

              Your argument is 1. If there is no right measurement of time, then any unit can measure it 2. Days cannot be measured in terms of hours and seconds 3. Therefore any unit can measure it. A fortiori, if any unit can measure days, music notation is the proper measure.

              The major premise is false; minor premise is false; and the syllogism has no distributed middle.

              And you are still arguing with an example. I don’t care about the example. Use another one if you don’t like it.

              If I said, “a symphony is patterns of matter”, would you say that this is meaningless? Or would you agree that a symphony is “matter in motion in certain patterns”?

              Of course it is meaningless, of course I would not agree. Have you ever seen musical notation? The g clef does not measure mass or distance. The word “pattern” means form. Form is not matter. Form is what gives form to matter. Matter is matter.

              A symphony is carried by soundwaves, but that is not what a symphony is. Symphonies have properties like beauty, balance, voice, resolution, center, and so on, which cannot be expressed by measurements of matter in motion, but only by judgments of listeners.

              Since you’re a professional wordsmith, I would think that an impolite response would be worth seeing, even if only for the entertainment value.

              Very well: you are banned. Does that entertain you, sir?

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      I said: “When eliminative materialists utter total nonsense like this, saying that “states” are made of “patterns” I wish they could describe the number and weight and shape of the concepts they are using, because I have no idea to what they refer.”

      You said: “Begin by reading Boolean Logic…”

      I ask you for a unit of material measurement of a material thing, and you refer me to Boolean logic, which is the study of the abstractions of meanings of sentences when reduced to the utmost values of true and false, ignoring shades of accurate and inaccurate or metaphorical meanings.

      Not only does this not answer my question, it supports my argument. Your ability to write down statements in logic either in pen and ink, or represent them with pipes of water or copper wires holding electrons or any other arbitrary representative code or language you care to concoct does not make abstract logic a thing made of matter like a billiard ball.

      Even the billiard ball with a number on it, such as the eight ball, is not itself a number. It is not an ball that can be divided evenly by two or a ball made up of the cube of a prime. It is made of ivory.

      Anyone not a voodoo doctor can tell the difference between a wax doll and the man the wax doll represents.

  24. Comment by wrf3:

    I ask you for a unit of material measurement of a material thing, and you refer me to Boolean logic, which is the study of the abstractions of meanings of sentences when reduced to the utmost values of true and false, ignoring shades of accurate and inaccurate or metaphorical meanings.

    You have to start with the basics, John. “True” and “false” are just one arbitrary assignment of meaning to the presence or absence of electrons. One can also assign the meaning of the numbers zero and one. Once you have that, then collections of the presence/absence of electrons can be arbitrarily assigned other meanings, such as “dog” or “red” or other shades of meaning.

    Not only does this not answer my question, it supports my argument. Your ability to write down statements in logic either in pen and ink, or represent them with pipes of water or copper wires holding electrons or any other arbitrary representative code or language you care to concoct does not make abstract logic a thing made of matter like a billiard ball.

    But it does give the basis for showing how the idea of abstract logic is encoded into matter. The blog post showed how to construct an adder. With a little more work (and a great deal many more wires and NAND gates) I could construct a circuit that recognizes whether or not an arbitrary circuit is an adder, i.e. one would be “this adds” and the other would be “this is/is not an adder”. Brains have even more complex circuitry that understand “abstract logic” which is simply a collection of things (the notion of true and false) and operations on things (union, intersection, implication…).

    The unwarranted leap that you’re making is because brains recognize these things, that these things must have existence apart from brains.

    Even the billiard ball with a number on it, such as the eight ball, is not itself a number. It is not an ball that can be divided evenly by two or a ball made up of the cube of a prime. It is made of ivory.

    And a note is (typically) not a symphony. But notes make up music which is the temporal relationship between sounds. Thought is the same thing — it’s a symphony of electrons. Arrange notes one way and you have a dirge. Arrange them another way and you have jazz. Another produces rock. It’s no different with electrons and thoughts. What are the units of a symphony, John? Is it immaterial?

    Anyone not a voodoo doctor can tell the difference between a wax doll and the man the wax doll represents.

    Sure. But that isn’t what’s happening here. What’s happening is that brains are able to abstract things into categories. We do it all the time when training neural networks to, say, recognize letters. It learns what an “a” is, and a “z”, and the letters in between. It’s no different from a child who confuses dogs and cats for a while, until they eventually “get it”. (“Kitty, daddy?” “No, son, that’s a dog.”) Because brains come to agree on abstractions in their neural networks, you’ve taken those abstractions and projected them outside of brains as if they exist apart from brains. Dogs exist apart from brains. But our neural networks encode the description of dogs. You claim that the description exists apart from brains when all you can point to are the dogs and the brains that hold those descriptions.

    • Comment by John C Wright:


      ““True” and “false” are just one arbitrary assignment of meaning to the presence or absence of electrons. One can also assign the meaning of the numbers zero and one. Once you have that….”

      I see. Merely by phrasing things in the passive voice, and talking about what our brains do (perhaps without consulting us) you overlook the basic fact that you are discussing the relationship between symbol and object. That is what the word “assignment” here means.

      The symbol-object relationship is not itself a thing made of matter and having mass, duration, extension, heat, and so on. It cannot be expressed in terms of mass, duration, extension, and so on. It is not an observable property of matter: One cannot tell by looking at an electron if it represents “true” or represents “one” or represents “calligraphist.”

      Ergo the property of “what does this object represent in the mind of a purposeful being who is using it for the purpose of symbolically representing some topic either physical or not physical” is not a physical property and cannot be reduced to physical properties or expressed as physical properties.

      I salute your utter inability to notice that you are using the very concepts and categories you are arguing do not exist. You have faith like a child, and no ability to notice when you contradict yourself.

      You would make a great salesman. They also never stop talking about their product as you close the door on their jabbering faces.

      • Comment by wrf3:

        The symbol-object relationship is not itself a thing made of matter and having mass, duration, extension, heat, and so on. It cannot be expressed in terms of mass, duration, extension, and so on. It is not an observable property of matter:

        Really? I seem to recall a certain story by a certain author that has a plot line of discovering meaning in a certain alien artifact near an antimatter star. How could they do that if a symbol-object relationship cannot be expressed in matter?

        One cannot tell by looking at an electron if it represents “true” or represents “one” or represents “calligraphist.”

        That’s absolutely right. You cannot tell what an isolated electron means. Nobody (except perhaps you) is arguing that it can. Yet portions of the alien Monument were translated. Meaning was found in a static arrangement of matter. Hofstadter discussed this in “Gödel, Escher, Bach” when he talked about the existence of “messages” with “inherent meaning”, i.e. where the symbols alone were enough to convey their meaning. In any case, thought is just meaning in motion. You just have to get the patterns right, and that’s a lot harder than putting alien symbols in an alien arrangement on an alien monument.

        Ergo the property of “what does this object represent in the mind of a purposeful being who is using it for the purpose of symbolically representing some topic either physical or not physical” is not a physical property and cannot be reduced to physical properties or expressed as physical properties.

        Then how did Del Azarchel and crew translate part of the alien Monument?

        You would make a great salesman.

        Great salesmen close deals. I won’t be worthy of that appellation until you have your “Eureka!” moment.

        In any case, if you want to stop, as “you close the door on their jabbering faces” might imply, just say so.

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          Really? I seem to recall a certain story by a certain author that has a plot line of discovering meaning in a certain alien artifact near an antimatter star. How could they do that if a symbol-object relationship cannot be expressed in matter?

          Your response to the assertion that the symbol-object relationship cannot be expressed in terms of the SI units that describe matter in motion is to point out that I made up a make believe story with magic in it, and one of the magic things was a rock with writing on it.

          You are a fool. You could have defended your position, or said something showing you understood the nature and gravity of my objection. But instead you wanted to play ‘gotcha!’ But you cannot even play it right. To play ‘gotcha!’ you have to find some place where I disagreed with myself, not where I disagree with amateur pop philosophers like Mr Hofstadter.

          I did not say writing did not exist.

          I did not say words written in ink do not have physical characteristics. If you speak the same words, all the physical characteristics are different in every respect, and are not even measured in the same units. The thing that remains the same is the meaning. Therefore the meaning is not a physical characteristic. This is a point I covered before.

          I said that the property “truthfulness” in a sentence cannot be measured by weighing the mass of the ink used to write the sentence down, no matter how carefully it is weighed.

          I confess that I cannot imagine you honestly missed that point, or that you misunderstand me.

          “In any case, thought is just meaning in motion…”

          In any case, Tuesday is just eighteen dog-food cans in amplitude. You are gibbering. Your sentence is meaningless.

          I have before said that it you could reduce a unit of thought to other SI units, you would be able to express it in an expression: “honesty = force times mass squared divided by one-half truthfulness.” This is a point I covered before.

          Instead you utter a metaphysical conclusion without showing your work or giving a reason for it. “Thought is matter; thought is matter; thought is matter” is not a syllogism.

          “You just have to get the patterns right…”

          The word “patterns” here is a substitute word for “meaning”. This is a point I covered before.

          I would be happy to bow out of this conversation. Your flippant condescending manners combined with an appalling ignorance about matters philosophical and scientific make this conversation an unwelcome chore. You are like a man who thinks sparkly unicorn fairies make automobiles go talking to a professional mechanic, and talking down to him. You have not even the first idea of how to frame your argument, what to establish as axioms.

          If you had shown any modicum of curiosity about the topic under consideration, or even an ability to see and exploit the weak spots in my argument, I would have continued. As it is, I suspect you are having an obscure joke at my expense.

  25. Comment by robertjwizard:

    Hierarchical inversions reign supreme, I see.

  26. Comment by Nostreculsus:

    Mr wrf3 is making an interesting claim.

    Imagine that radio antennae pick up a series of radio signals – intervals of activity (above a certain threshold) alternating with periods of radio silence. It can be transcribed as a sequence of ones and zeroes. If the sequence is long enough, we can ascertain its statistical properties. Hence we can measure its degree of disorder (its entropy).

    The information per symbol and the distribution of information throughout the sequence are therefore measurable physical properties. But Mr wrf3 goes one step further. He quotes Douglas Hofstadter approvingly and claims that we can deduce the “inherent meaning, i.e. where the symbols alone [are] enough to convey their meaning” purely from the message. We can tell if it is a message and not some natural phenomenon.

    Isn’t this akin to the claim of those who believe in “intelligent design”? They assert that by measuring the complexity of DNA sequences they can decide whether or not the sequence is designed. But Mr Wright contends that “Meaningfulness is not a material property.”

    Let me stipulate that the sequence is not a transmission directed from the space aliens to us. So there is no allusion to areas of common knowledge: no lists of primes or encoded star maps. If it is a message, it is an intercepted signal from one group of aliens to another, discussing some alien topic. But we can download as much of it as we wish.

    So, I ask, how does the intrinsic meaning of a sequence “emerge” from its bare material description?

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