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A Meta-Opinion

Entry 1692, on 2014-12-24 at 14:28:30 (Rating 2, Philosophy)

I have a lot of opinions on a wide variety of subjects. Some of them are controversial and others are fairly mundane, some are well supported by the consensus of experts and others not so much so, some I am practically certain about and others I have significant doubts about. I think these differences stem from the different types of knowledge areas these opinions exist in.

I have already explained in previous blog posts how I think there are no facts in the real world. We can never be 100% sure about anything except in the fields of maths and logic where some things are true because they are defined that way. For example if A leads to B and B leads to C then A leads to C, or if A leads to B then if not B then not A, etc.

But saying the Sun will rise tomorrow is not a fact because there is a tiny chance that the Earth or Sun could suffer some astronomical catastrophe before then. Of course the contention that the Sun will rise tomorrow is so close to being a fact that we might as well treat it as one, and this applies to many things in science, and I would say that it applies to many of my opinions too.

But not to all. There are areas where I fully realise that I might be wrong or that right and wrong might not even have much meaning. So let's look at some of my opinions and see just how close to being a fact they are...

First opinion: evolution is the best theory to describe the diversity of life on Earth.

I would call this a fact because the evidence is so overwhelming and there is no serious alternative theory. Note that this doesn't mean evolution itself is true because there might be another explanation of the phenomenon not covered by a current theory (although this is unlikely). There might also be weaknesses in evolution theory (although there are no serious ones I know of) but the alternatives might be even weaker.

Second opinion: anthropogenic climate change is a real phenomenon and a threat to our future.

This is somewhat less of a fact because there is a significant quantitative factor which isn't well specified. For example, how much of a threat is it and to whom? Some outcomes might be significant enough to be called threats by some people but not by others. Also, climate change has multiple causes and some are not related to human activity (note that I didn't specifically claim this in my opinion).

Third opinion: since we know of no greater source of moral standards all moral judgements are effectively opinions.

Some people would debate the antecedent here but if we allow for it to be true I think the consequent naturally follows. I would also point out that the opposite is also true: that if there are absolute moral rules then there must be a higher source (god maybe). So I think this opinion is a fact if we allow the antecedent (that there is no greater source of moral standards).

Note that this can't be used to prove god exists though, because there is no evidence that absolute moral standards exist (unless you invoke god's laws and succumb to the logical fallacy of begging the question).

Fourth opinion: neo-liberal economics is the cause of most of the world's current problems.

This is clearly an opinion and even though I can back it up with a series of facts I also realise that someone holding the opposing view could also demonstrate some facts to support that. Since no controlled experiment has ever been held (and never can be held) comparing different political and economic systems I would say that it might never be possible to say with any certainty which system is best.

I also accept that this statement involves a touch of rhetorical hyperbole. There should be no doubt that neo-liberal economics has major flaws, it's really just a matter of how significant these flaws are in comparison to alternative systems.

I think it's important when debating a subject to know what kind of question it is.

Is it a question of logic? If it is there's probably little point in continuing the debate since the rules of logic are already well established and we are either following them or we are not.

Is it a question of facts about the real world? If it is realise that there are no absolute facts and rejecting a theory because it is only 99% certain is not good debating technique, especially if your alternative has almost no credibility.

Finally, is it a question of complex human behaviour (such as politics or economics)? If it is then there is little chance of reaching any credible conclusion because the system is just so complex and sensitive to unpredictable effects. We should still debate these subjects but finding a final conclusion or point of agreement is unlikely.

Just to finish I wondered what type of statement this blog entry was about (a sort of meta-opinion: an opinion about opinions). It's a little bit of them all really so conclude from that what you wish!

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Comment 1 (4244) by richard on 2014-12-31 at 12:33:40: (view recent only)

I congratulate you on the correct analysis of your third opinion.

There are many people (among those that are determined to not allow for even the possibility of a 'greater source of moral standards'), that for some bizarre reason also like to hold onto the idea that some moral standards are somehow 'absolute', ie something other than the mere opinion of individuals (who have no greater authority to set 'opinion' than those individuals with the opposite view). They are irrational enough to think that that murder, or rape, or child torture are somehow 'wrong', rather than recognising your truth and admitting that they aren't wrong at all in any 'real / significant' sense, they are in fact just actions that some individuals just don't happen to like much.

When their house is being invaded and their possessions robbed and their children raped they should really acknowledge that these actions aren't actually 'wrong', (or put another way, making a choice NOT to do these things is not actually the 'right' thing to do at all), and that since the perpetrators are bigger and stronger than them, that they actually have no basis for complaint whatsoever, because the 'truth' is that these stronger individuals have earned the right (by their clearly superior genetics) to determine what morality actually looks like.

I look forward to a world in which this truth you preach is finally acknowledged and accepted by all these irrational people - like everyone involved in the legal system that currently enforces mere 'opinions' - from judges to the police force that we somehow think we are justified in calling when mere opinions are being expressed. All of course are currently deluded and need the benefit of this reality.

I guess you are right, there is no 'evidence' that absolute moral standards exist - It is much easier to believe that almost every single person in the entire world is deluded, as when push comes to shove (literally) - no one (and I mean NO ONE) sincerely believes the above is the true reflection of reality.

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Comment 2 (4245) by OJB on 2015-01-01 at 09:54:23:

You seem to have pursued a straw man attack on my ideas here. Let me just clarify a few points...

I know of few, if any, people who are determined not to allow for a greater source of morality. In every case I know (including myself) it's not that we don't want that source to exist, it's just that there is no evidence it does and we follow the evidence.

You seem to deny the possibility of morality arising as an emergent property of logical and reasonable thought amongst members of a social species. There is no doubt that "higher" and very complex phenomena can result from simpler processes amongst many individuals. Why can that not be the source of a common morality?

Finally, I think we should periodically check our morals to see if they make sense. At one time it was considered moral to have slaves and to exploit the environment in any way convenient to greater "progress". Those ideas have now changed.

If we pretend that our moral ideas are imposed by a god then we are unlikely to examine them and change them if necessary. I know that there are some things which are unlikely to ever change but the principle is still sound.

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Comment 3 (4246) by OJB on 2015-01-01 at 09:57:52:

Reading back through point three in the original post and comment 2 I now think that the word "opinion" is probably too weak to describe moral standards. An emergent property of a population's ideas shaped by social evolutionary principles is more than an opinion, but less than an absolute, objective standard, When I think of a better word to describe it I will post it here.

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Comment 4 (4247) by OJB on 2015-01-01 at 14:38:06:

Maybe a better word (or phrase) would be a "subconscious consensus". It's something that almost everyone agrees on, based on opinions shaped by societal pressures and memes. The idea of social evolution sort of fits in quite well with biological evolution.

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Comment 5 (4248) by richard on 2015-01-03 at 13:15:38:

Thanks for the responses. What straw man exactly? You yourself, made the observations that belief in a higher source was essential IF morals were in fact absolute, and I was only making the observation that deep down, I believe we all recognise the existence of said absolute morals. Again it takes determination to believe that every human on the planet is actually living in denial, rather than accept that obvious feature of reality.

However, you claim that morality is rather an 'emergent property of logical and reasonable thought amongst members of a social species'. Fair enough to make the claim, but I think there are a number of problems with that hypothesis:

Firstly, we must remember that the ONLY justification for even the existence of such logic, (in your view that is), is evolutionary - i.e. what best gets my genes into the next generation. The ONLY morals that can possibly 'emerge' are those that aid that cause alone. Yet it is abundantly clear that in the real world moral actions that in the majority of cases would assist the survival of the fittest, such as theft of property (the best warm clothing, and tools from the weak etc), and rape (the most obvious way to spread your genes) are almost universally labelled 'immoral'. It is no good to respond by saying but we all just don't like our stuff being taken, or being raped - so have decided it's wrong. That we even entertain that notion is in itself a moral view that simply should not ever have emerged to occur to us in a purely survival of the fittest world.

Secondly, that as individuals capable of 'logical and reasonable thought' it takes only a second to make the obvious logical leap, that without any 'higher source' any and ALL such social contracts that might have 'emerged' under your idea, have absolutely no real significance, meaning, or weight/authority. Hence there is absolutely no reason for any of us to obey them. What does it really matter if I choose not to, but rather act in a way to serve my own purpose? This is the point of my first post. It is also something that we are seeing in the news that IS occuring to more and more people every day. Why exactly should I deny my own impulses just because the police or legal systems suggests it. Why indeed? - Obviously the threat of the resulting punishment may be enough for most of us, but again that is circular - as per my first point - those punishments are also social contracts that have no sound evolutionary basis as per point one above. And of course, all 'criminals' don't anticipate getting caught when committing their 'crime'.

The fact that morality has apparently 'changed' is itself a straw man and missing the point. Whether morals are in fact 'objective' has nothing to do with whether we as a social group decide to change our own rules to match that or not - that is the whole point. The point is whether or not the group might actually be 'wrong' at times - something that simply cannot be IF no absolute morals actually exist.

Both examples you gave are too vague to provide any real clarity, we still believe it is moral to exploit the environment for greater progress, look around your house as I did mine and see if that is not the case. Slavery is of course a term that needs appropriate definition. It has NEVER ever been moral to mistreat 'employees', but the keeping of 'servants' is still considered moral.

The real point though is that you seem to be suggesting that you are 'absolutely' (lol) fine with the idea that the morality in those areas could change back again tomorrow to the way they were? So slavery in its worst connotation would ever be OK, as would exploiting the environment in any conceivable way? Is that really your stance? I suspect you actually agree that slavery (in its currently 'immoral' definition) was always and always will be immoral? That's where you need to choose better examples like rape or murder to clearly see the logic problem you have with your view. You MUST accept the possibility of a social contract environment where those things are considered moral - and then they REALLY are moral. This is for all of us unsustainable (in the real world).

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Comment 6 (4249) by OJB on 2015-01-04 at 10:46:31:

In fact I have stated on several occasions that I don't think morality is primarily a phenomenon associated with biological evolution. I thought I had said (fairly clearly) that it more social than biological and a result of changes in societal norms.

I do think that conventional genetics does play a part however, and there are many ways that a change which on the surface seems detrimental to an individual helps the associated gene and so evolution can act on it. Social insects are a classic non-human example. The idea of "survival of the fittest" is too simplistic and has been thrown out years ago.

All of your arguments for absolute morals work just as well with my theory of "consensus morality". And since my theory is based on no new assumptions plus is supported by observed scientific evidence (as opposed to yours which requires a "morality giver" for which we have no scientific evidence at all) then by Occam's Razor my theory wins!

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Comment 7 (4252) by Richard on 2015-01-05 at 07:31:55:

You may claim that you don't think morality is primarily a phenomenon associated with biological evolution but under your world view I struggle to see how it can be anything else?

Survival of the fittest thrown out years ago... Wow. All the latest tv science doco's still seem to like the idea? Time they caught up I guess with the plan of making evolution so hard to pin down that it cannot be faulted.

Your last paragraph didn't answer my simple question. So I will ask it more plainly. Are you happy with the idea that if torturing your children was to become a new 'social norm', you'd have no issue with it?

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Comment 8 (4253) by OJB on 2015-01-05 at 09:30:57:

Most of an individual's attitudes and beliefs don't come directly from any innate "programming" from biology, they are the result of what they are taught by their parents, friends, and society as a whole. Surely you can see that these social memes themselves evolve according to which are more successfully transmitted to new generations. After all, Christianity is the most successful societal meme in the world!

I'm not sure what documentaries you have been watching (from the Christian TV channel maybe :) which don't question the survival of the fittest idea, but ask any expert. It's not that the idea is wrong, just that it is far too simplistic. A lot of this is covered in Dawkin's book, the Selfish Gene, have you read it?

No, I would not be happy with the idea of torturing children. I'm not saying that "consensus morality" is always right, but neither is the mythical morality from your god. After all, he changes his mind a lot, presumably because he got it wrong the first time!

On the other hand there does seem to be a trend in the consensus towards less violence, greater inclusivity, more tolerance, greater reason, etc, so in general "consensus morality" seems to work.

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