Believe it or Not: Does Either the Universe or Moral Truth Exist?
Not all questions can be answered for certain.
Some questions can be answered with a high degree of certainty. If I ask you “Is grandpa in the kitchen” you can go into the kitchen and see for yourself. This question is rooted in some reasonable assumptions: for instance, the question assumes that my senses actually inform me about the world around me, and thus if I see grandpa is in the kitchen that means that he is actually in the kitchen in reality. Most people take these assumptions for granted, and I’d say that there is good reason to do so. However the strange fact of the matter is that we can’t actually prove that any of those assumptions are true. It is possible that we are nothing more than Boltzmann brains: simply a mind that experiences a reality that doesn’t actually exist. Or we could be a brain in a mad scientist’s jar with all our sensory inputs being manufactured from some computer program. Or the world around us may be a simulation created by beings unknown. This is an example of solipsism. Solipsism is a philosophical position that states that the only thing we can know for certain is that we exist: after all, if we don’t exist than who is asking the question “What exists?” Everything else we must take on faith, as it were. It is possible that the world around us is a real place, that the people around us are real people, and that our senses (on the whole) provide us with accurate information about reality. Or it is equally possible that we are the only things that exist and everything else is simply a kind of convincing hallucination. Both possibilities are equally supported by the evidence at hand, and both explain our experiences to an equal degree. When it comes to a question like this we have to make a decision even if no hard evidence can be had. Most of us decide that the world is real and our senses do inform us about reality. A few (very few, but they exist) take the position that everything apart from themselves is an illusion. Neither one can provide compelling evidence to convince the other to change their position. If I try to convince a metaphysical solipsist that the world does exist he can simply reply that any evidence I offer is just an illusion, same as everything else. This isn’t an illogical response: after all, if we believed we were hallucinating a talking pink elephant we wouldn’t accept any evidence the pink elephant provided for its existence. To the metaphysical solipsist all of reality is a hallucination, so naturally any evidence the hallucination provides can’t be trusted.
We are in a similar situation when it comes to deciding whether or not moral truth exists. All we know is that we experience moral “sensations:” for example, when we see an old man being robbed and beaten by young thugs we feel that this is monstrously wrong, or when a friend breaks a promise and we feel this is unjust, or even something as simple as a stranger stealing our lunch from the break room fridge. Now there are two proposed explanations for why these sensations exist: either they are sensing something real about reality (moral truth) or that these sensations are the result of the architecture of our brains and have no correspondence to actual objective truth other than “This is how I happen to feel because I have this type of brain.” Neither explanation can be known to be true for certain. Those who favor the later explanation may rightly say “There is no need to propose that some kind of natural moral ‘law’ exists: brain architecture developed through natural selection is all that is necessary to explain these sensations.” However I would remind you that the metaphysical solipsist can say the same thing about everything: “There is no need to propose that some kind of physical reality exists: mind alone is all that is necessary to explain the sensations of reality I experience.”
So that’s where we find ourselves. When it comes to the question of whether our moral senses tell us anything about reality, or whether our physical senses tell us anything about reality, we have to do something scary. We have to make a decision without compelling evidence. The idea that moral truth exists, that morality is something that is discovered and not simply felt, is one that I hold dear: however I must admit that I can’t compel anyone to believe it through evidence alone. As I’ve said before, if you take the other position that’s fine. I’m alright if you’re a nihilist. I think you’re wrong, but at least you’re consistent. My main objection is when people who claim to believe that our moral senses are purely illusionary then start to preach about what we should or shouldn’t do. And I would ask everyone to reflect on this question and decide which side of it they land on. Is there a moral dimension to reality, or is morality a useful illusion in order to aid the survival of the species? Which is it? And whichever one you choose, are you prepared to live your life in light of that knowledge?
It’s something everyone should contemplate. Some say the unreflective life is not worth living. If you behave as if something is right or wrong, I think you should really take the time to figure out why.