Saturday, November 6, 2010

Epistemology 101: Part 1 On Ontology and the Failure of Reformed Epistemology

Epistemology: [mass noun] (Philosophy) the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope, and the distinction between justified belief and opinion.

Due to numerous Christians now claiming that neuroscience cannot reveal whether morals exist independently of the brain, and that any subject related to morality must be relegated to the religious domain, I am going to do a series of articles in which I lay out the basics of epistemology and show exactly why Christians who espouse this are not only wrong, but they aren't doing themselves any favors, since ultimately--even if a external or independent form of morality should exist--our understanding of it would still be limited by our finite senses and interpreted subjectively by our brains. 

Even so, Christians keep telling me objective morality is primarily an ontological concern, and secondarily an epistemological concern, i.e. what we can know about it. What they are in essence claiming is that morals exist independently of human psychology, thus only ontologically justifiable (yet how this accounts for ontological mistakes I can't presume to guess), and only then can they come to be understood through the practice of epistemology. 

Stripping it down to it's most common form, the theists claim is this: morals exist because God exists, therefore we can pinch these morals out of sacred texts, holy laws, divine dictates and what not, thus coming to a better understanding of what it means to be moral. As an atheist and a naturalist I take umbrage at such a wildly unfounded, unsupported, and seriously flawed claim such as this. Therefore, I will first show how ontology does us no good with respect to moral issues, and secondly, I will show that objective morals can be had even with the limitations of our brain and its subjective reasoning. If successful, these proofs will thereby lend positive support for naturalism and the atheistic worldview.

Ontology: A Few Objections
Still many theologians such as Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, Alister McGrath, etc., believe that the magical powers of the Holy Spirit can counter act the brain's limitations (although how one would prove that I have no inkling of a clue), and somehow reveal insights into the mysterious workings of God's divine will, but the truth is until such a statement can be proved beyond a shadow of a doubt (verification only then making the claim credible) it is a weak claim which should not be relied upon for the single basis of objective morals and values.

For example, the famous theologian Alvin Plantinga developed something called Reformed epistemology. Basically, according to Reformed epistemology, belief in God can be rational and justified even without arguments or evidence for the existence of God. 

All this amounts to is the wet and sticky smack of sophist nonsense, because anybody who understands the implications of such a claim realizes that this voids the empirical worldview, by basically stating we can gain knowledge and understanding through other means than experience, which subsequently means the empiricist's account of experience, i.e. nihil in intellectu nisi prius in sensu (nothing in the intellect that was not previously in the senses) is also void. As a consequence this renders skepticism moot, and therefore asking the question to begin with would prove futile, and as such could never be the correct way of reaching any given truth or gaining any understanding of it. 

In this sense a skeptical worldview founded on radical empiricism  would seem to render Plantinga's Reformed epistemology self refuting. Epistemology, if anything, must be predicated on our experience of gaining knowledge--this is known as foundationalism. If you amputate experience from the process of how we accrue knowledge, apply knowledge, and/or actively seek knowledge then you've simply denied there is such a thing as knowledge to be gained at all. And since our epistemic instinct is that knowledge is real, and that we can come into possession of it through experience, then once again it stems to reason that Reformed epistemology is self refuting.

If you took the metaphysical point of view, however, you also have other problems, such as having to account for ontological errors, or answer for how you can know things which cannot possibly be verified through empirical means. This is why the theologian is so happy to invoke ontological arguments in his favor anytime he runs up against the burden of having to divvy up the proof to back up any of his claims. It's much easier just to say it is simply epistemologically valid to believe, yet that takes us right back into the self refuting digression of Reformed epistemology.

As such Reformed epistemology is clearly a fallacious concept, but at the same time a vacuous one as well. 

The Failure of Reformed Epistemology 
Alvin Plantinga's Reformed epistemology fails, not only for the reasons mentioned, but because he is basically claiming that you can have an objective moral reality (via the ontological premise) without appeal to any basis in reality whatsoever (basically minus foundationalism), and this is clearly unsatisfactory.
What Plantinga's hypothesis boils down to is a "warrant to believe" (in God) which he thoroughly develops in his three volume series beginning with Warrant: The Current Debate, Warrant and Proper Function, and Warranted Christian Belief. I guess it's worth reading if you're interested in epistemological matters in how they relate to sustaining theistic belief, but beyond that Plantinga doesn't offer much in the way of the general function of epistemology (epistemology proper). So why then would I single out Reformed epistemology if I put no weight behind it with regard to moral issues? Because many Christians do (whether they know that's what they're doing or not is a different matter), and what's more they often misuse it as a means to rule out any subjective basis for objective morality which naturalists and nonbelievers may appeal to. This often leads them to claim that atheists are godless heathens and without a moral compass, but this is a mistake for reasons which will soon become clear.

The problem here being that most theists, and Christians, frequently have the wrong understanding of how facts relate to ontological and epistemological concerns. As Sam Harris details in his controversial new book The Moral Landscape:

...many people seem to think that because moral facts related to our experience (and are, therefore, ontologically "subjective"), all talk of morality must be "subjective" in the epistemological sense (i.e., biased, merely personal, etc.). This is simply untrue.

Harris clears this up by offering an easy to follow analogy.

After all, there are countless phenomena that are subjectively real, which we can discuss objectively (i.e., honestly and rationally), but which remain impossible to describe with precision. Consider the complete set of "birthday wishes" corresponding to every conscious hope that people have entertained silently while blowing out candles on birthday cakes. Will we ever be able to retrieve these unspoken thoughts? Of course not. Many of us would be hard-pressed to recall even one of our own birthday wishes. Does this mean that these wishes never existed or that we can't make true or false statements about them? ....Clearly, we can make true or false claims about human (and animal) subjectivity, and we can often evaluate these claims without having access to the facts in question. 

Indeed, I myself continually run into Christians who say that I have no authority to speak about moral claims because my opinions are only ontologically subjective, and that with regard to ontological claims, only an independent ontological reality could provide to the proper epistemological basis for discussing moral claims (this is a form of holism). 

This, however, is clearly problematic since you can simply disprove a holism by showing one part which can function independently separate from the rest.  In moral terms, what this means is that *if God was a moral source, and thus morality had an ontological basis, that in order to be moral you would have to rely on this understanding of morality first in order to be moral. 

Contrary to what theists may believe, there are many walks of life hailing from all areas of the globe, with various customs and differing beliefs, including atheists, who exhibit moral behavior without appealing to the Christian understanding. This defeats the holistic premise that morality has an ontological basis with how it relates to God, since even atheists can be kind, loving, moral people, therefore we can refute the idea that morality depends on an ontological holism. 

Therefore there is no independent objective morality to be gained via ontological methods. Morality, then, must exist independently. The question then becomes, what sort of morality exists in a naturalistic and atheistic world? Is it merely subjective? Or can there be an objective morality as well?

Objective Reality is Only Ever Subjective
Thus objective morality can be defined without religious metaphysical claims and without any appeal to an ontological basis for support. But more importantly, if we give the theologians and religious believers the benefit of the doubt, if for example there was an external or independent objective moral reality, then the only way we could possibly come to gleam insights from it are through our experience, skeptical inquiry, empirical reasoning, and finally coming to an understanding via epistemological methods--all of it subjective. Meanwhile modern neuroscience seems to confirm this conclusion, showing the brain to works strictly in this capacity yet yields sufficient reason to believe in morality as a neurological phenomenon and so making any ontological premise untenable (not to mention unnecessary).

Ontology can be explained as a neurological construct created by the limitations of the brain. For more on this please refer to:

1. The neural basis of human moral cognition: Nature Reviews
Neuroscience 6, 799-809 (October 2005) | doi:10.1038/nrn1768 (http://

2. The neural basis of belief encoding and integration in moral
judgment: May 2008 NeuroImage 40; 4 1912-1920 (

3. The amygdala and ventromedial prefrontal cortex in morality and
psychopathy. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 11;9 September 2007,

4. The neural basis of implicit moral attitude–an IAT study using
event-related fMRI. NeuroImage 30;4, (1 May 2006), Pages 1449-1457 -
5. The neural basis of the interaction between theory of mind and
moral judgment – PNAS 104;20 8235-8240 (May 15, 2007) -

So if we take the metaphysical approach and then objective morality is ever only subjectively understood and hence merely relative. This may explain why so many different religions think about morality differently and what's more have strong dissenting views on how to practice this morality--which is directly reflected in their religious behavior.

Yet if we take the naturalistic approach we can use science and philosophy to help guide us to understanding the benefits of moral considerations by testing and applying those which enhance human happiness and flourishing. Any moral truth, after all, would need to involve these two things, otherwise it would not be applicable to us. 

Needless to say, many religious "moral" concepts conflict with human happiness and flourishing. For example suicide bombing does little to enhance either, while the Catholic practice of confessing of one's sins and saying a few hail Mary prayers may ease a guilty conscience it does nothing to prove the happiness or flourishing of the human race. In both cases each is a selfish act, which is deemed "morally" beneficial to the person of that faith, and therefore only applies to the local moral values as defined by that religious group, but in reality has nothing to do with the objective reality of morals or values.
Objective & Subjective Reality Minus the Metaphysical Conjecture
In order for and external or independent objective moral reality to exist as Christian theologians like to claim exists, they first have to prove a whole litany of metaphysical claims, which by their very tenuous nature require more than just an appeal to ontological reasoning, and therefore defeat the purpose of Reformed epistemology. So let's do away with the assumption, shall we? We now know that beliefs, whether about morals, values, or birthday wishes can be subjective and still contain objective truths--even as we may not fully understand the nature of these truths or be clear as how they came to be--the thing we can be clear about, however, is that these truths are not metaphysical in nature and have no ontological basis for support.

Next time:
In the next article I will show how epistemology in the form of modal logic helps us define basic truth claims.

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