December 30, 2008

Can't Have It Both Ways Though

R. Reno in First Things On the Square shows that determinism really won't make any difference in our ethical behavior in the real world:
The ability of science to explain and illuminate the webs of interconnection does not dislodge our deeper intuition that our deeply embedded, highly influenced, and profoundly physical mental lives are somehow genuinely our own—and somehow our responsibility to discipline and cultivate.

Roskies and Nichols think that we are more sophisticated philosophically than philosophers (and scientists) give us credit. It’s quite reasonable for us to reason about the actual world differently than an imagined world—and their experiment shows that we do. This is especially true when we are asked to reflect on the moral significance of abstractions—and the proposition “all our choices are determined and not free” is nothing if not an abstraction.

As Hillary Putnam has observed in a related context, “The impossibility of a metaphysical grounding for ethics shows that there is something wrong with metaphysics, and not with ethics.” The undergrads at University of Utah don’t know Hillary Putnam from Sir Edmund Hillary, but they seem to agree. “In the world taken as actual,” Roskies and Nichols conclude, we assume that “people are morally responsible regardless of the truth of determinism.”
But doesn't that fly in the face of the assumption of most of us (not Reno necessarily) that in a post-Christian world things will be terrible because "everything is permissible"? Perhaps I'm missing something but Reno's post implies things won't get too bad because "real-world consequences focus the mind," as Reno wrote, and even without an awareness that God exists people will be constrained from much evil simply because of earthly consequences.

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