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Thursday, February 18, 2016


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Would you say that someone would be within their epistemic rights to dismiss claims that free will, morality, and the mind are illusions and reducible entirely to materialist mechanisms brought about by evolution, as absurd, and without argumentation?

Short answer: No. Those claims warrant explicit refutation.

If someone said that consciousness is an illusion I would be tempted to dismiss him on the spot as a sophist, but in some cases the dismissal would come after a couple of sentences: "An illusion is an illusion to consciousness; so you are presupposing what you are trying to eliminate."

Does the same hold true for claims that morality is an illusion? It's easy for me to imagine some sophist arguing with an intelligent, though philosophically-uninformed, person that there is no such thing as right and wrong.

And it seems to me that one's common sense is enough to justify waiving such claims off. In other words: our philosophically-uninformed interlocutor may not be able to answer intelligently the nihilist's objections (maybe he can't see his way around the claim that morality is just an evolutionary mechanism), but he nonetheless can see that these claims are "absurd" or ridiculous, and that to accept them would entail accepting a kind of insanity.

I don't think so. If the claim that morality is an illusion is equivalent to the claim that there are no objective moral values, then this thesis has been urged by serious and highly-ranked philosophers who are decidedly not sophists. I refer you to "The Subjectivity of Values," ch. 1 of J L Mackie's Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong.

I understand what you're saying.

I guess my concern is that the "common man" or the non-professional (such as myself) often does not have the expertise or perhaps even the intellectual capacity to examine or refute these claims, and I'm not quite comfortable with the idea that if someone doesn't have the ability to refute the claims of some nihilist (or materialist or whatever), they must accept that morality (or mind or free will) is an illusion.

In other words, I can understand holding professionals to these requirements, but I wonder to what degree the layman can be held to the same standards.

Suppose you lack the 'chops' to refute Mackie's arguments for the subjectivity of values. It doesn't follow that you must accept his conclusions.

You could say this: "I have a deep and abiding sense of the objectivity of values, and because Mackie's position has been rejected by experts in the field, I am within my rights in holding to my position."

That makes sense.

My questions are part of larger question in my mind, which is: to what extent can a common man or a philosophical layman have the epistemic right to hold their beliefs?

I'm a struggling and discerning conservative Catholic. I think it goes without saying that the academy is predominately liberal and atheist. Surveys taken of the intelligence of these groups tend to say that those learning left and more secular are more intelligent than their right-wing, religious counterparts. As much as it pains me to say it, I've found that this jives with my experience.

So my question is: if a majority of experts, and indeed of intelligent people generally, believe something, what epistemic right do I have to disagree?

I think this is an important question for those of us who are not academically-trained thinkers, but who wish to declare the right to hold onto our most cherished beliefs.

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