Sunday, February 18, 2007

Another example of an atheistic contradiction...

In an earlier post I mentioned that I was currently engaging in a discussion with Jason Hatherly on his blog "Nihloisms" ( Jason is an atheist and an ethical nihilist (i.e., he believes there is no such thing as objective moral truth). I encourage you to visit his site to read the full discussion, but I wanted to quote a brief excerpt from it here. As should come as no surprise to anyone who has read much of what I have written in the past, it is my position that any atheistic position inevitably leads to contradiction. I pointed out one contradiction in an earlier post on this blog. In my conversation with Jason, I came across another one. Below is an excerpt from one of my responses to him pointing out this contradiction.

Now I am sure Jason will be responding to the points I raised here, but he is out of town for the moment. Again, for the sake of fairness, I encourge you to visit his blog to see what he has to say when he does get the chance to respond. But because atheistic contradictions are somewhat of a recurring theme for me, I try to point them out for you when I see them. As a brief lead in, Jason had discussed something called the "Wason Card Test", which he claimed provided support for believing that all morality is derived through the process of natural selection. At the start of the following exerpt, I will briefly explain the Test, then explain the contradiction I believe Jason made:

"Before I get into my next point, I want to make sure we are on the same page about the Wason Card test. Basically, this test presents people with two alternatives, one in which they are supposedly asked to recognize cheating and another in which they are supposedly asked to recognize altruism. Allegedly, people have a much greater ability to recognize cheating than they do altruism. According to evolutionary psychologists, the reason for this is because the ability to recognize cheating is necessary for the survival of society. Therefore, it would be favored by natural selection and most of us today would therefore have an inherent ability to recognize cheating. However, altruism is not necessarily beneficial to society. In fact, people who engage in altruistic behavior would routinely incur personal costs without reaping any benefits, and would actually be weeded out by natural selection. Because cheating recognition is favored by natural selection but altruism is not, we all should have a greater ability to recognize cheating than altruism (because, after all, we are supposedly the result of natural selection). This is claimed to explain the Wason Card test results.

Preliminarily, I think you overstate the strength of this conclusion about the Wason Card test. It is far from universal in the scholarly community. In fact, many scholars believe the results are better explained by deontic reasoning. For example, research by Martin Evans and Young Chui Chang studied whether the altruism example presented by Cosmides in the formulation of this test was actually too muddled, such that people could not actually recognize it as altruism. They presented three alternatives: (1) Cosmides' cheating example, (2) Cosmides' altruism example, and (3) a clearer altruism example. Lo and behold, people were able to recognize alternatives (1) and (3) with equal frequency! Their findings were actually far more consistent with a deontic reasoning explanation that the evolutionary psychology explanation.

Now I am not necessarily endorsing this view. I am simply pointing out that I think you overstate the evolutionary psychologist's position and create the impression that it is more widely agreed upon than it actually is (I do grant that you point out that it is not a universally accepted position, but actually I believe that it would be more accurate to say that it is still a very hotly debated position).

Now turning to the matter at hand, in your affirmative section you argue that the Wason Card results provide additional support to an evolutionary model for morality. Obviously this is only true if the evolutionary psychologist's explanation for the Wason Card results is correct, which is far from certain (plus you would still be faced with all the general problems I illustrated above). But more importantly, your reliance upon the Wason Card test in your affirmative section is actually at odds with one of the positions you take in your defensive section.

You stated that, 'My own position is that moral rules originated in the enhanced survival value afforded by reciprocal altruism. This effect is compounded by the fitness benefits enjoyed by a group that contains some altruists.' But wait a minute. The entire reason the Wason Card test supposedly supported the evolutionary psychologist's view was because altruism was NOT favored by natural selection and cheating recognition was. So in your effort to overcome the problem created by the inability of evolutionary models to explain the origin of moral rules you claim altruism IS favored by natural selection. But in order for the Wason Card test to provide any support for your position altruism must NOT be favored by natural selection. These cannot both be true."


Adrian Miu said...

There are 2 different matters discussed there
1. the ability to spot cheating/altruistic behaviour
2. the ability to behave altruistic/selfish
It seems that there is a contradiction but it isn't. The ability to SPOT cheating is favoured in evolution and not the ability to SPOT altruistic behaviour. This applies to individual level. But altruistic behaviour is favoured by evolution in social species. Altruistic behaviour is a result of the ability of the group members to spot the cheating behaviour. Since the members of the group that behave in a cheating way become more easy to spot they become extinct.

Ten Minas Ministries said...

Thank you for your comments. I believe that your distinction, though, is basically the equivalent of six of one or a half dozen of the other. Remember that according to Jason's argument, "reciprocal altruism" is what would be favored by natural selection (the key word here being "reciprocal"). Now in another part of my response to him I pointed out that what he is describing is not truly altruism at all, because he has eliminated any sense of the selflessness from his definition of altruism. But leaving that aside, how are you supposed to "reciprocate" altruism if you cannot recognize when someone is being altruistic toward you? Inherent in his argument is that the ability to recognize altruism also must be favored by natural selection. Otherwise there would be no reciprocity.

But according to the Wason Card hypothesis, the whole alleged reason the results turned out the way they did was because the ability to recognize cheating was supposedly favored by natural selection whereas the ability to recognize altruism was not. So I see your point in that I perhaps could have expressed myself a bit more clearly, but the conclusion remains the same. In one part of the argument the ability to recognize altruism must be favored by natural selection whereas in the other part of the argument it must not be. The contradiction is still there.

Thank you again.

Ten Minas Ministries said...

You also seem to believe that if someone is not a cheater, then they are by necessity altruistic. I do not believe this is the case. Just because you are not a cheater, that does not mean you will necessarily be altruistic.

You stated that altruistic behavior is favored by evolution in social species, and in support of this comment you mentioned that cheaters would be weeded out by natural selection. But even if cheaters are weeded out, that does not mean that what we are left with are altruists. I can be a completely self-serving person, but do so without violating anyone else's rights or violating the social norms. Therefore I am not a cheater, but I am still only looking out for myself. The mere fact that cheaters will be eliminated does not mean that altruists will be the result.