A Mind for Madness

Musings on art, philosophy, mathematics, and physics

Mathematical ethicists?

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I should make it a vow of the new year to not get into ethical debates with mathematicians. I’m not going to lie. Mathematicians seem to be much harder to argue with than philosophers. They seem to be much more rigorous, they accept much fewer axioms, and are willing to admit to craziness just to not present a contradiction with their side.

Where is this all coming from? Well, on Friday I got into a few debates with a certain person. The most interesting of which was on whether or not agnosticism is a defensible position. This ended up continuing today with a different person. Amazingly enough, the characterizations given above apply equally well to both of these people, yet they both argued different points (I stayed on my one).

It went a little bit like the following. I claim that agnosticism is not a defensible position. In my brief encounters with the subject, it seems as if mathematicians tend to believe that it is the only position that you can defend from a rational standpoint. We can never know whether there is a God or not, and hence we cannot make a definitive statement one way or the other.

I claim this is nonsense. An agnostic formulates definitive beliefs about the world all the time instead of claiming to “not know.” Most contradictorily being that they are not agnostic with respect to most gods created in human history. Most agnostic are actually atheists with respect to Greek or Norse gods. Less contradictorily, but even more absurd is that an agnostic that actually practices what they preach should say that we cannot know whether or not an invisible pink unicorn follows them around everywhere they go. We have no evidence for or against it, thus the truth of its existence cannot be known for sure. (You may as well consider this line of reasoning to be a variant on Okham’s Razor).

Alright, well that is just one of my arguments, but it turns out that one of the two people were actually willing to agree to not knowing things like the pink unicorn. So on further pressing, like whether or not my eyes were deceiving me and instead of solid ground three feet in front of me there was actually a cliff, he admitted we could not know that for sure as well.

At this point you may be wondering what this has to do with ethics. And here it is. I decided to shift to an ethical argument. I say that an agnostic must ethically make the shift to atheism, because to not do so is to endorse unethical behavior. A person goes and kills someone and says that God told them to do it. The agnostic has to accept that this is possible. In fact, we could use the old standard of the categorical imperative and think about a world of all agnostics. Someone is on trial for a murder. Their case is that God told them to do it. They must be let off free. What if they are telling the truth? Who are we humans to condemn someone carrying out God’s command? Thus I claim that agnosticism tacitly supports an ideological system that allows for immoral behavior to be confused with moral behavior.

The person on Friday bought this argument, but then decided that the same case could be made against atheism. I don’t wish to go into detail, since it completely changes the topic, but essentially the tangent topic dealt with moral relativism vs absolutism and whether or not a case could objectively be made against nihilism (as you may be able to piece together, the argument was that a purely absolute ethics cannot exist, so an atheist system of ethics tacitly supports a nihilistic ethics which devalues human life unless there is a sound argument against it). I’m still thinking about it, but it is a harder case to make.

As I’ve probably stated in the past. My general view is that an absolute ethics does exist, and we can know parts of it, but in general we will probably never know all of it.

Author: hilbertthm90

I am a mathematics graduate student fascinated in how all my interests fit together.

One thought on “Mathematical ethicists?

  1. Isn’t saying ‘agnostics inevitably form definitive beliefs’ a red herring? What an agnostic does with beliefs X, Y, and Z, whether rational or irrational, does not logically carry over to the validity or soundness of an agnostic’s stance on belief G.

    Personally, I think this hinges on very technical gradients of ‘knowledge’ and how ‘defensible’ a position is. Instance: do I *know* the sun will come around tomorrow morning? I believe it will, but I do so under a large number of unconscious assumptions that have been rewarded and then reinforced in my involuntary cognition. Perhaps I can bring forth and clarify these presuppositions with enough effort, and I can make a valid, logical deduction the sun will reappear based off my assumptions, but trying to prove my assumptions will only take me in a wild-goose chase for vain, and it’s turtles all the way down.

    The major issue is if induction is valid. In many contexts, it happens to work, but in others it doesn’t. (Black swans.) The key thing is that induction is merely an epistemic strategy, so to speak, that tends to reward with comfortably consistent positive payoff and nearly negligible negative payoff, in the anthropic scheme of things.

    Do I have any knowledge which would logically contradict the sun not coming up tomorrow? No, but I choose to be extremely skeptical of any claim that it won’t. To paraphrase and revise advise from Daylight Atheism’s post called, “How to Think Critically I: Extraordinary Claims,” I think we should be skeptical of claims in proportion to the amount of previously established understanding they are inconsistent with.

    Next, your slide into ethical theory with your line of reasoning is extremely hazardous.

    One: claims of the form “[pronoun] should believe Y” are dubious because the link between belief and behavior is specious. It’s the difference between the pragmatic and correspondence theories of truth. Is atheism ‘defensible’ logically, epistemologically, or are you now exchanging it for ethically in an attempt to retain territory in debate?

    Second: You automatically assume an ethical system of acting on belief that is convenient to your position; such is unfair and hasty. Just because we don’t 100% ‘know’ someone didn’t kill for a god doesn’t mean we have to let them go. You can’t just hoist an uncertainty-equals-pacifism axiom into the ethical mix on whim.

    Third: ethics are not absolute. They are tethered to what we each individually desire out of our actions and behaviors. Granted, almost all of us have altruistic tendencies, and so our intentions extend outside of ourselves on occasion, but that doesn’t make ethics the same for all minds and perspectives.

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