Philosophy Carnival XCV



To start things off, Dr. Matthew Flannagan (from MandMargues  against Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s argument that morality is independent of divine commands. Sinnott-Armstrong’s argument is as follows:

Let’s assume that God commanded us not to rape. Did God have any reason to command this? If not, his command was arbitrary, and then it can’t make anything morally wrong. On the other hand, if God did have a reason to command us not to rape, then that reason is what makes rape morally wrong. The command itself is superfluous. Either way, morality cannot depend on God’s commands.

Dr. Flannagan takes issue with this argument by claiming Sinnott-Armstrong’s usage of “reason” is ambiguous given that it can be used in either a psychological or constitutive sense, and when thus framed, the argument fails. For me, this seems like a combination of parochialism and attacking a strawman. To defend Sinnott-Armstrong, I feel that when an atheist is discussing whether or not God had any “reason” to command this or that, he is only playing along with the naive anthropomorphism of Christian conceptions of God wherein God could even be said to have motivations or psychological “experience” at all. Sinnott-Armstrong is then likely not literally asking about psychological motivations. Dr. Flannagan contends however that if Sinnott-Armstrong is not talking about motivational reason, he must be talking about “constitutive” reason in the way “h20” is constitutive for water. It seems unclear to me that we should be using this awkward language of constitution to discuss the theological problem of moral “dependence” that Sinnott-Armstrong is talking about. If we accept the argument as valid or at least interesting then it points us in the direction of atheism, which would invalidate the question of whether morality depends on God through either motivation or constitution; the question is simply moot if there is no God to begin with as there is simply no divinity to deal with in the atheistic reference frame. Sinnott-Armstrong is just playing along with the Christian framework, but trapping him into a logical conundrum does not really address the argument in its full force.

It is very easy to reformulate a natural-language argument into a neat logical package, make a distinction that might not be relevant, and then dismiss the argument as being illogical based on the distinction you introduced and how you framed the nuances of the argument. Looking at the question theologically, without a logical filter, opens up discourse that challenges the need for discussing morality within a framework of divinity. We should be looking at Sinnott-Armstrong’s argument in terms that encompass the broader questions of God’s existence. Just like Euthyphro’s dilemma is not just talking about Greek gods, Sinnott-Armstrong argument needs to be looked at from a broader angle which can deal with the ethical and metaphysical ramifications of such atheistic thought.

Philosophy of Mind

In a very interesting thought experiment, Avery Archer of Space of Reasons attempts to demonstrate that Setiya’s proposed necessary truth Belief is not very necessary, but only prototypical. Here is Belief:

When someone is acting intentionally, there must be something he is doing intentionally, not merely trying to do, in the belief that he is doing it.

Archer constructs a thought experiment wherein someone with a thought-controlled prosthetic arm (Jesse) becomes, on account of a misleading letter, unconvinced as to whether or not he is able to control his arm (even though we know that the letter was a sham, and he is in fact capable of performing intentional action with the arm). Following the thought experiment through, Archer tries to show that it is conceptually possible that one could intentionally (voluntarily) make a bodily action, but not have the surety of belief in knowing that you are doing it (Belief). Archer cautiously acknowledges however that this is an unusual circumstance and that, moreover, his thought experiment does not argue against Belief being the prototypical case of intentional action, but only that Belief is not a necessary truth.

I think I agree with Archer in terms of softening the necessity of Belief, but feel like the thought experiment is too artificial to fully capture the pragmatics of bodily action. It seems to me that prior to arriving at the lab, Jesse would have been constantly experimenting with his arm to determine if the device worked or not. He would have been sending out the usual voluntary nervous signals to activate the “muscles” of the arm and if the signals worked he would have instant visual feedback of his success, establishing the perceptual body-world feedback loop that is so important in sensorimotor dynamics. Furthermore,  if the arm was really sophisticated it would likely have haptic feedback built into the system by letting his stub know if the nervous signals sent across successfully activated the arm. In both cases, it would be unusual if Jesse was moved to indecision about his success from reading an anonymous letter, and not from the more obvious reality of reciprocal feedback. Nevertheless, I applaud Archer for developing this case study because I think that this thought experiment has a useful conceptual structure for working out what it means for an action to be intentional or not.

Paul Gowder, of Uncommon Priors, has pointed out some complexities involved in the human psychology of desire, particularly second-order desire. Although Gowder does not say it himself, perhaps these logical inconsistencies arise only when we try and pigeon-hole human psychology onto a neat and tidy model involving belief and desire? Perhaps a new sort of model is necessary to fully capture the dynamics of addiction and habitual action. I think Robinson et. al (2000) have begin to do this with a perceptual-salience model of addiction. I wager that eating icecream is not so different from doing heroin in terms of being neurochemically triggered by familiar environmental contexts. Walk into the kitchen, open the freezer out of habit, pull out icecream, eat. This is probably done rather automatically without a sense of agency. Can agency then be reduced to belief and desire? Seems unlikely. See: Robinson, T., & Berridge, K. (2000). The psychology and neurobiology of addiction: an incentive-sensitization view. Addiction, 95(8s2), 91-117.

Moral Philosophy

Moving on,Thom Brooks of the Brooks Blog, reconstructing the moral philosophy of Adam Smith, tries to generously retool his theory of punishment into a more workable form and leaves a lot of interesting questions open to be dealt with in another post, so stay tuned for more.

Richard Chappell, from Philosophy Etc. , has a nice review of hedonism (as understood here) that looks into some problems concerning purely hedonistic theories of welfare. Although this is way outside my domain of knowledge, I am sympathetic to what I think Chappell is trying to do here in combating a purely “qualia” based theory of well-being. Chappell rightly seems  to argue that there are complicated second order motivations at work that involve the pursuit of a valued life as opposed to a sensuous, but intuitively unfulfilled life.


Perhaps channeling the later Wittgenstein, Ryan Lake of chaospet has a humorous solution to dealing with the Liar Paradox.

Finally, in a non-academic spirit, Erin Pavlina talks about “grounding” ones self through five practices. While I do not condone the new age wrapping, I wanted to include this submission because I enjoy all five of these things immensely and recommend them to all in need of “grounding”.


Some non-submitted, but attention worthy blogging has been taking place lately, so I’d like to share.

-Paul Ennis has been conducting a series of interviews with some people interested in “speculative realism” that are worth checking out. See the front page of anotherheideggerblog under “recommended reading”.

-Peverse Egalitarianism hosted an excellent reading group over the summer for Lee Braver’s A Thing of this World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism. If you are interested in continental and analytic issues of realism, the blog group is worth checking out for all the insightful commentary, but reading the book is your best bet.

-Peter Hankins, one of my favorite bloggers, has an interesting post about Asimov’s Three Laws here which deals with the frame problem and choice.

-PhilosophyNow magazine interviews Charles Taylor (thanks Enowning).

-As for podcasts, everyone should know about the excellent Philosophy Bites and Radiolab podcasts. Radiolab is the best thing ever.

-To pimp my own blogging, check out some posts I have been doing on Heidegger and Kant here and here.

Well, that about wraps it up. I apologize for the brevity of submissions for this Philosophy Carnival; there did not seem to be that many submissions that fit the academic tone that we try to preserve on the carnival. Once again, thanks to Richard Chappell for organizing this whole thing,(don’t forget to visit the website), and if you want to host future carnival’s,  send Richard an email and submissions will be automatically emailed to you.




Filed under Philosophy

7 responses to “Philosophy Carnival XCV

  1. Rob

    Philosopher’s Zone is also a nice source of podcasts:

  2. jeremy

    radiolab is the best thing ever!

  3. Gary, your suggestion that Matthew Flannagan’s article attacks a strawman ignores the context of the argument Matt is attacking. Sinnott-Armstrong states that he is addressing a conditional claim that if God exists as defined by William Lane Craig then that being provides an adequate foundation for moral obligation. Sinnott-Armstrong suggests that he is going to address the claim that divine commands constitute moral obligations.

    In this context the issues you criticise are perfectly appropriate for Matt to raise; the question is whether if God exists his commands can constitute moral obligation. The question of whether or not God exists or whether this particular conception of God is correct does not actually address the conditional claim as to what would be the case if God, defined this way, did exist. To attribute to Sinnott-Armstrong any relationship between God’s commands and moral obligations other than a constitutive one would be a failure to address his argument.

    With respect, you might wish to read Sinnott-Armstrong’s argument in its context before you start leveling strawmen accusations.

  4. Pingback: Theology Geek NZ » Blog Archive » Philosophy Carnival XCV

  5. Very nice Carnival, I like your responses to a couple of the submissions. Also, thanks for including my silly little submission.

    Oh and yes, Radiolab is the best thing ever!

  6. Pingback: The 95th Philosophers’ Carnival « Snow is white

  7. Pingback: Philosophy Carnival XCV | MandM

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