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Wielenberg's Recent Paper on Non-Naturalistic, Non-Theistic Ethics

If you don't know already, Philosopher's Digest is an excellent new philosophical resource. As the site's title suggests, philosophers write short but careful summaries of recent articles of note in their respective areas of specialization (including philosophy of religion), and offer worries or criticisms of their arguments to indicate their strengths and weaknesses.

Recently at PD, John Milliken posted a digest of Erik Wielenberg's recent paper, “In Defense of Non-Natural, Non-Theistic Moral Realism” (Faith and Philosophy 26:1 (January 2009), pp. 23-41). The paper argues that moral truths are necessary truths, and that moral facts are non-natural facts (which is my own view, for what it's worth). He further argues that the criticisms of Wainwright, Moreland, and Craig to this sort of view would, if cogent, apply with equal force to their own, theistic accounts of ethics.


Surrealium said…

Hello. I have an epistemological question prompted by but unrelated to the above entry. My question, essentially, concerns whether materialism is compatible with the apprehension of immaterial realities. Phrased differently, can a wholly physical object (i.e., a person's brain) directly apprehend an immaterial state of affairs? Prima facie, it seems a purely physical system requires a physical medium or connection for direct perception or apprehension of any sort.

We can use Wielenberg's thesis as a platform from which to formulate a variant of the question. He contends that moral facts are states of affairs which obtain. This is, of course, a component of his (and, according to the above, your) moral ontology. But what of his moral epistemology? I suspect that Wielenberg affirms materialism with respect to persons, and I imagine that he also wishes to hold that the acquisition of moral knowledge--knowledge of moral values and duties--is possible (not to mention actual). But, on materialism, how is it possible to acquire any moral knowledge if the objects of such knowledge are immaterial? In other words, returning to the original question, how can a wholly physical object directly apprehend an immaterial state of affairs?


-- Surrealium
exapologist said…
Hi Surrealium,

Great Benacerraf-style question! I should first say that I'm agnostic about big ontological questions such as the fundamental nature of concreta. However, on some days I'm a tentative naturalist (although I'm not a physicalist. I'm inclined toward something like Type-F monism). In any case, my own view is similar to one of those suggested at the end of Bonjour's In Defense of Pure Reason. The basic idea is that while universals qua types are abstract, their tokens are concrete, and we can be in causal contact with the latter. Alternatively, on a more strictly Platonistic account of universals, concrete individuals stand in some sort of "participation" relation with universals, and we can stand in a non-causal, asymmetric, "influencing" relation to the universals that participate in the concreta. On the latter account, I reject Benacerraf's premise that knowledge requires causal contact; on the former, I grant it, yet deny that there is a problem. Or, more weakly, I see neither account as any more implausible than other accounts.
Surrealium said…

Thank you for addressing my question. If you'll permit me, I have one or two other questions of clarification. I suspect that they're due, at least in part, to my limited acquaintance with the work of Benacerraf and Bonjour of which you made mention.

>> "The basic idea is that while universals qua types are abstract, their tokens are concrete . . ."

Could you briefly elaborate on this, particularly with respect to something like Wielenberg's moral epistemology?

>> ". . . concrete individuals stand in some sort of 'participation relation with universals,and we can stand in a non-causal, asymmetric, 'influencing' relation to the universals that participate in the concreta."

On materialism, say, how would one account for this variety of influence (or one's cognizance of it), if it's non-causal in nature?

Thanks again for your time.


-- Surrealium
exapologist said…
Hi Surrealium,

I'm not sure about the particulars of Wielenberg's moral epistemology, so I'm not in a position to say something informative. I'm just going off the digest of the article I linked to.

As to your second question: This might be a problem for a materialist, at least if they reject non-causal influencing relations. However, I'm not sure I see why they *should* reject it, unless they hold to an extreme, scientistic version of physicalism. In any case, I'm not sure if this is a concern for Wielenberg, as it's at least not clear that he is a materialist (and I certainly am not. I'm a Platonist about abstracta, and as I mentioned earlier, I'm inclined toward something like Type-F monism about concreta). As I say, though, I'm just going off of the digest I linked to.


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