A tip of the hat to Professor Joel Hunter for referring me to a recent discussion between philosopher Julian Baggini and physicist Lawrence Krauss. We have come to expect shoddy scientistic reasoning from Professor Krauss (see here) and our expectation is duly fulfilled on this occasion as on the others.
The issue under debate is whether there are any answerable questions in which philosophy has proprietary rights. Are there any questions that are specifically philosophical and thus beyond the purview of the sciences? Or are all answerable questions scientific questions? For Krauss, ". . . all the answerable ones end up moving into the domain of empirical knowledge, aka science." When philosophical questions "grow up, they leave home."
Moral (ethical) questions have traditionally belonged to philosophy. If Krauss and his scientistic brethren are right, however, these questions, if answerable, will be answered empirically: "science provides the basis for moral decisions . . . ." Baggini makes the expected response:
My contention is that the chief philosophical questions are those that grow up without leaving home, important questions that remain unanswered when all the facts are in. Moral questions are the prime example. No factual discovery could ever settle a question of right or wrong. But that does not mean that moral questions are empty questions or pseudo-questions.
Baggini's is a stock response but none the worse for that. Krauss' rejoinder is entirely lame:
Take homosexuality, for example. Iron age scriptures might argue that homosexuality is "wrong", but scientific discoveries about the frequency of homosexual behaviour in a variety of species tell us that it is completely natural in a rather fixed fraction of populations and that it has no apparent negative evolutionary impacts. This surely tells us that it is biologically based, not harmful and not innately "wrong".
Here we observe once again the patented Kraussian 'bait and switch' dialectical ploy. Note the scare quotes around 'wrong.' Krauss is switching from the relevant normative sense of the word to an irrelevant nonnormative sense. That is the same type of trick he pulled with respect to the Leibnizian question why there is something rather than nothing. He baited us with a promise to answer the Leibnizian question but all he did was switch from the standard meaning of 'nothing' to a special meaning all his own according to which nothing is something. So instead of answering the question he baited us with -- the old Leibniz question -- he substituted a different physically tractable question and then either stupidly or dishonestly passed off the answer to the physically tractable question as the answer to the philosophical question.
He is doing the same thing with the homosexuality question. He is equivocating on 'right' and 'wrong' as between nonnormative and normative senses of the term. Avoid that confusion and you will be able to see that a practice cannot be shown to be morally acceptable by showing that the practice is engaged in. Slavery and ethnic cleansing are practices which have proven to be be very effective by nonnormative criteria. World War II in the Pacific was ended by the nuclear slaughter of noncombatants. Questions about moral acceptability and unacceptability cut perpendicular to questions about effectiveness, survival value and the like.
There is also this Kraussian gem:
. . . that many moral convictions vary from society to society means that they are learned and, therefore, the province of psychology. Others are more universal and are, therefore, hard-wired – a matter of neurobiology. A retreat to moral judgment too often assumes some sort of illusionary belief in free will which I think is naive.
Three non sequiturs in two sentences. That's quite a trick!
A. Yes, moral convictions vary from society to society, and yes, they are learned. But Krauss confuses moral convictions as facts (which belong to psychology and sociology) with the content of moral convictions. For example, I am convinced that rape is morally wrong. My being so convinced is a psychological fact about me. It is an empirical fact and can be studied like any empirical fact. We can ask how I cam to hold the conviction. But my being convinced is distinct from the content of the conviction which is expressible in the sentence 'Rape is morally wrong.' That sentence says nothing about me or about any agent or about the psychological state of any agent. Confusing convictions and their contents, Krauss wrongly infers that moral questions are in the province of psychology as an empirical science when all he is entitled to conclude is that things like the incidence, distribution, and causes of moral beliefs belong in the province of psychology, sociology and related disciplines.
B. With respect to universal moral beliefs, Krauss falls into the same confusion. He confuses the moral belief or conviction qua psychological fact about an agent with its content. Even if my being convinced that X is morally wrong falls within neurobiology, because the being convinced is a state of brain, the content doesn't. A further problem with what he is saying is that moral beliefs cannot be identical to neural states. It is obvious that my moral convictions, as facts, belong to psychology; but it is the exact opposite of obvious that some of my moral convictions -- the universal ones -- belong to neurobiology. No doubt they have neurobiological correlates, but correlation is not identity.
C. Krauss thinks that the belief in free will is "illusionary." This is a nonsensical view shared by other scientistic types such as Jerry Coyne. ( See here.) It is also difficult to square with Krauss' own apparent belief in free will: "We have an intellect and can therefore override various other biological tendencies in the name of social harmony." So, holding social harmony to be a value we freely restrain ourselves and override out biological tendencies when we get the urge to commit rape. The man cannot see that his theory is inconsistent with the course of action he is recommending.
There is a bit more to the Krauss-Baggini discussion, but the quality is so low that I won't waste any more time on it.