Dr. Richard Cocks

Department of Philosophy

SUNY Oswego

Oswego, NY 13126


Six Philosophical Contentions For Which No Rational Argument Can Be Given

Determinism  The brain generates the mind  Consciousness does not exist  Evolutionary biology can supply the foundations of morality Moral relativism Cultural relativism


It might seem comforting and reassuring if we could put the foundation
of ethics on a rational footing. Then we could by-pass the dialogs of
Plato and their attempt to win usover to an ethical perspective.
We could simply assert that the desire to be good isrationally justified and that’s that. We could write on the board ‘2 + 2 = 4,’ and ‘you should care about the well being of other people’ and regard them as equally proven, and equally certain. However, our secret as teachers of philosophy is that no such proof of the foundations of morality is possible. The real basis for our belief that cruelty is wrong is a mystery.

Equally mysterious is our ability to recognize the validity of rational arguments. There seems nothing mysterious about it until one encounters a pre-rational person. Then one becomes aware that one can only defend rationality using the principles of rationality.

One might point to the pragmatic value of rational thinking, just as one might point to the pragmatic value of morality, but such an argument surely misses the point. Even our argument for the pragmatic value of rationality must make use of the principles of  rationality, which must be taken as actually true, not merely useful. We can’t be sure that rationality is pragmatic or useful if we have no rational argument that proves it.

By saying that we cannot give naturalistic accounts of ethics and rationality I mean that no scientific explanation of these things will ever be forthcoming. I am offering logical reasons why this is so, so the usual IOU that one day a naturalistic account will be possible is not going to be acceptable.
I am not offering as an alternative to naturalism, skepticism about ethics or rationality. I can’t without contradiction, doubt the existence of rationality, and still hope to rationally persuade my interlocutors of the nonexistence of rationality. None but a moral monster or moral retard doubts the existence of morality. The stance of the classroom moral skeptic is in bad faith. His amorality is a pretense. The skeptic cannot in fact live his life while ignoring moral categories. An interesting experiment would be to deny the skeptic a pay raise which by every single stated criterion should accrue to him, and then watch to see what he does. If he expresses the slightest indignation, he is refuted.

If one is doubtful as to whether someone believes something, or is just pretending, it is a reasonable idea to judge the person’s beliefs by his actions. If an engineer says a bridge is safe, but always drives miles out of his way to avoid it, we might reasonably suspect him of lying. Hypocrisy reveals the difference between fiction and reality in such cases.

Why have so many philosophers been drawn to skepticism in the modern era? I suspect that all philosophy tends to point indirectly to the existence of God. All phenomena that depend on the existence of consciousness end up being the subject of philosophizing, i.e., knowledge, morality, mind, value, beauty, meaning. The very fact that we do not l eave these phenomena up to science already suggests that we realize that no naturalistic explanation will be forthcoming. The typical analytic philosopher has an intuition that this must be true. Stated most succinctly; consciousness-related phenomena offer a
challenge to naturalism. Two choices present themselves. Deny the existence of the phenomena against all possible common sense, irrationally accepting all the logical contradictions that immediately arise or write a scientific IOU to be cashed in the future.

The following arguments point out the self-defeating nature of skepticism and also why the IOU method won’t work either. As a footnote, the taboo on discussing scientific research into parapsychology verifies that we philosophers are not committed to the
scientific method, but to scientism; wedded to particular classical physics era conclusions.

Ironically, adherents of scientism see themselves as defending rationality against the irrationality of theism. To do so, many are willing to embrace some of the most ludicrous and irrational proposals any intelligent person has ever pretended to accept.

Arguing for determinism is self-defeating
There is no rational basis for even suspecting either that determinism is true, or that random chance rules the universe. If determinism is true, then my concurring or disagreeing with an argument is predetermined. That means I am not concurring or disagreeing based on the merits of the argument, but because of some other set of circumstances. This means, were determinism true, then rational persuasion would be impossible, and I could not have rational reasons for being a determinist.
The determinist might argue that determinism certainly seems like a logical possibility. Given the law-like regularity of physical events, then given certain prior circumstances,  certain succeeding circumstances will follow, including one’s thoughts, assuming thoughts to be the product of physical events. Thus we have a rational basis for
concluding that rationality might be an illusion. When we appear to be being convinced by the merits of an argument, we are merely playing out events set in motion since the Big Bang, or, if we are wrong about the Big Bang, then at least the state of affairs that preceded the current state of affairs. But of course, if rationality were an illusion, then there would be no rational basis for suspecting that rationality is an illusion. By definition, we can never have reasons which are true and relevant, and which we know to be true and relevant, for thinking that being persuaded by premises which are true and relevant never in fact occurs.

Some people argue that certain categories of physical events are random, and that that is why we should not believe in determinism. However, if mental events were the result of random physical processes, then once again the rational assessment of the merits of an argument would be impossible. Accepting or not accepting the conclusion of an  argument will then necessarily be the result of a random process, instead of being accepted or rejected because of the merits of the argument. If physical events were random and our thoughts generated by physical events, then thinking would be random, not rational. So we cannot have rational reasons for believing that thought is the random effect of random causes.

Arguing for determinism (or randomness) is self-defeating. If you are right, you cannot be thought to be right on the basis of rational argument, because, if determinism or randomness is true, then rational argument is impossible. Even worse, you cannot evensuspect that determinism or randomness is true. If this suspicion is rational, then it must be because you have found good reasons to suspect determinism or randomness is true.

I admit that it seems like determinism might be true. But due to the self-defeating nature of this suspicion, if I am right to suspect that determinism is true, i.e., I have good grounds for my suspicion, determinism must either be false, because I am indeed considering this topic based on the merits of the arguments, or if determinism is true, I
can never have any good grounds for believing it to be true, or even suspecting it to be true, because rationality is an illusion.

Causes are not reasons. Let’s say Brain State A deterministically gives rise to brain State B, which deterministically gives rise to Brain State C. Then let’s say that BSA gives rise to the thought that ‘If I’m good, I’ll get a bike for Christmas.’ BSB gives rise to the thought that ‘I have been good,’ and BSC gives rise to the thought that ‘I’m getting a
bike for Christmas.’ At the mental level, it seems that I have two premises and a conclusion. The premises support the conclusion. The premises are relevant and the argument is valid. Let’s go so far as to say that it’s sound (the premises are also true).

If the brain generates the mind and the brain is deterministic, then my thoughts are the product of determinism. But somehow, I am evaluating the merit of the argument. I conclude that the conclusion follows from the premises. I cannot both be free to conclude
that the conclusion indeed follows from the premises, or to conclude that it does not, if my thinking is determined. I am supposed to be drawing my conclusion by looking at the merits of the argument. I must be free to make up my mind by appealing to rational considerations. Causal determinism would mean that I am being strong armed into my conclusion. And even the reader’s evaluation of the arguments currently under consideration requires free will and not non-rational physical processes. And to repeat, if you then say that rationality is merely an illusion, then don’t pretend that either one of
us can be rationally persuaded by argument.

This means that only free will can be rationally considered to be true, or even rationally suspected of being true. Compatibilism must be considered false, because it concludes that determinism and free will can somehow exist along side each other. I have demonstrated that this is not true because determinism is not true, or at least we can
never have any rational reason for thinking it might be true.
In addition to the self-defeating nature of arguing for determinism, there is a practical objection. This objection is that determinists are only classroom determinists. Their behavior outside the classroom indicates that they believe in free will. In order for determinism to be true, moral responsibility must be an illusion and love must be an
illusion. Determinists continue to hold other people and themselves morally responsible for their actions, and hopefully, they manage to love other people.

The arguments for the connection between free will and moral responsibility are well known. The argument as to why love requires free will might be less well-known. I will give the argument despite knowing that people who are inclined to adopt determinism
will regard the topic of love with distaste.

Love is not love if it is not freely given. If you discover that every time your beloved attempts to leave you he or she is electrocuted, or are taken into an interrogation cell and brainwashed, then this would change your feelings about your beloved. It is not actually possible to compel love. And even if it were, we would regard the result as
worthless. The existence of love, and the existence of morality, proves the existence of free will. (Here, with regard to morality, I am agreeing with Kant). How free will is possible I am not attempting to explain.

Arguing that the brain generates the mind is self-defeating

For the same reasons, we cannot rationally suspect that the brain generates the mind.The brain, as a physical mechanism, is either deterministic or random, or both. The physical events in the brain give rise to other physical events causally, or one physical state of affairs is randomly supplanted by some other state of affairs. Of course, if the
latter is true, then it’s a wonder any of us are alive at all. Every second would be a lottery deciding whether our next unconsidered and random thought and action might be our last. Thus our belief that the brain may be generating the mind is not rational. The belief is
either predetermined by causal factors, or it is the result of random events. But, to reach any rational conclusions, one must be making decisions about what to believe on the basis of reasons, rational argument, and considering the actual merits of the argument.

Once again, arguing that the brain generates the mind is self-defeating. If you win the argument, you have proven that winning arguments is not the result of rational reflection based on the merits of arguments. If you are right, we can never know it. And even our conclusion that we can never know it, is the result of the rational consideration of the merits of the case. So even reaching the conclusion that we can never know because the existence of rationality is unproven, is self-defeating. I would be concluding that rational argument does not exist on the basis of rational argument which supposedly does not exist.

Arguing that consciousness does not exist is self-defeating

Arguing that consciousness does not exist is also self-defeating. I admit that I can’t define consciousness very well because I can’t explain it. I can try to define it is as awareness, or that which enables me to think and reason and understand – or at least, as the medium
in which my thinking and reasoning and understanding occurs, whatever that might mean.

To be persuaded, I must be aware of what you are saying. I must possess awareness.

To be persuaded I must understand what you are saying. I must possess understanding. To be rationally persuaded, I must be capable of rational thought. I must be able to think about your premises and to be able to decide whether they are relevant and true. The
persuader must have all those attributes also. Thus, if you grant me awareness, understanding, the capacity for rational thought, you have granted me consciousness. If I am lacking any of these things, I cannot be rationally persuaded. Thus arguing for the nonexistence of consciousness is self-defeating.

Rational argument also assumes the existence of a rational interlocutor, i.e., one who can assess the merits of an argument on a rational basis, and potentially be persuaded of the truth of one’s conclusion. We do not argue with people or things that are not considered conscious. We do not argue with chairs. Arguing that consciousness does not exist would be pointless if one was oneself convinced that not only was one’s interlocutor not rational, they were not even conscious. Dead people (at least their bodies) are non-controversially not conscious. Comatose people are non-controversially not conscious. Chairs are not conscious. If arguers against consciousness believed their own arguments, they would have no rational basis for distinguishing between dead, inanimate, preschool, or comatose interlocutors, and rational conscious interlocutors. And yet, they unerringly zero in on
the only kind of interlocutor with whom it makes sense to argue – a rational and conscious interlocutor. You cannot persuade someone who is not conscious. Who or what might one be persuading? And who is doing the persuading?

Searching for a Biological Foundation for Morality is Self-defeating

Understandably, the hope that a naturalistic basis for morality will be found is still present among many atheistic philosophers. One current hope is that evolutionary biology will provide the answers. Unfortunately, evolutionary biology cannot provide these answers
for reasons which apply to any attempt to base morality on a naturalistic foundation. The logic of any naturalistic explanation will end up indicating that morality does not exist.

So, far from providing the foundations of morality, one will lose the phenomenon one is oping to explain; a self-defeating proposition.

Part of the problem is that science, as the study of objective fact, cannot ‘see’ morality, orany other value. It is like stipulating that before one can study music, one must wear sound canceling headphones. If you can not even find the phenomenon one is trying to
study, one must declare the phenomenon an illusion.

The best that biology can possibly tell us is that morality is useful and/or that morality does something like tending to preserve the species, or that human communities that adopt morality stand a better of chance of surviving than amoral human groups.

The first objection to this line of thinking is that if biology is the basis for morality, then morality is the result of mindless mechanistic compulsion. If our tendency to believe in the reality of morality is the result of a biological mechanism, then we are not drawn to moral perspectives by their truth, beauty or goodness. We are compelled and determined by a brute and mindless nature.

The atheist might retort that it does not matter what the ultimate ground of morality is, since the existence of morality is undeniably good. But this involves a vicious circle. If it is good that biology leads us to adopt moral perspectives, then the goodness of morality must be independent of biology. For if biology compels us take moral perspectives, our judgment that this is good, is just another instance of the compulsion of biology. If biology compels us to judge that the influence of biology is good, then we are not arriving at our conclusion as the result of any kind of reasoned judgment. Our conclusion
is biologically unavoidable. We are in the grip of mindless determinism. We have admitted that these conclusions are something that we are biologically driven to conclude. To rationally conclude that the influence of biology is good, we need to adopt a moral perspective which is not derived from biology.

The second problem that the naturalist faces is that he or she is likely to conclude that morality is useful. It promotes human welfare. This conclusion itself has three problems.

One is that ‘useful’ in this context just means something promoting the human good. If we conclude that being useful is good, then we are just saying the good is good. This is circular, tautological and uninformative. If we insist that being useful has a non-biological basis for its value, then we have discovered that moral values are not
biologically derived after all. Saying that moral categories are good because they promote human welfare is to rely on the notion that promoting human welfare is good irrespective of biology. If it is biology that leads us to assert that human welfare is good,
then this is the dead voice of mechanism talking.

The third problem with morality being ‘useful,’ is that for something to be a means, there must be an end. The means are not good, if the end is not good. The goodness of the usefulness of morality depends on the end that morality promotes. If morality promotes human welfare, human welfare must be good for morality to be good. In order to know that promoting human welfare is good, we must rely on a moral judgment. If moral judgments are simply instrumentally useful, then human welfare turns out to be useful for some other end. But this is nonsense. What other end could human welfare be promoting? Human welfare must be intrinsically good, in order for the instrumental good of morality to be good. But there is no biological proof of the intrinsic goodness of human welfare. Once again the goodness of the usefulness of morality needs a non-biological ground.

Fourthly, we are not being moral if we are only doing it because it is useful. This would imply that if morality is not useful, we should not be moral. If a shopkeeper is honest because it is good for business, then he should lie when lying would enable him to make a killing. If the instrumentalist says that there are never situations where lying would be good for business in the long term, we can say that nevertheless, the shopkeeper is being honest for the wrong reasons, making him immoral.

Moral relativism is logically self-contradictory

Moral relativism is the assertion that all moral perspectives are equal. No moral perspective is better or worse than any other moral perspective. However, moral relativism takes a perspective on moral matters. A moral relativist thinks this perspective is superior to the alternatives. If moral relativism is not superior, then we have no reason
for preferring it to any other moral theory. Hence, merely advocating moral relativism as the best moral theory is to contradict moral relativism’s assertion that all moral perspectives are equal.

If all moral perspectives are equal, then it is wrong to rank one moral perspective as superior to another. Hence, moral relativism is superior to all the alternatives, because it alone does not rank. First of all, this is not true because moral relativism ranks itself as superior to the other theories. Secondly, ranking not ranking as superior to ranking is
ranking. The more definitively one rejects ranking, the more one ranks not ranking as superior to ranking which is to rank most emphatically.
Moral relativism also leads to a reductio ad absurdum. If moral relativism is true, and all moral perspectives are equal, then Hitler’s moral perspective is as good as Ghandi’s moral perspective. If one rejects this assertion, as one should, then one must reject moral relativism.

Cultural relativism is logically self-contradictory

Cultural relativists think that it is always morally wrong to make negative moral judgments about cultures to which one does not belong. This is because all moral  judgments are culturally relative. Moral judgments have their validity only within a particular culture, at a particular time and place. No moral judgments are universally
valid for all cultures at all times. Hence, it is always morally wrong to make negative moral judgments about cultures to which one does not belong, irrespective of time, place, or culture. In fact the moral prohibition on this sort of cross-cultural moral judgment is held to be universally true for all cultures at all times and in all places.

Cultural relativists assert precisely what cultural relativism says is never possible – universally true moral principles and judgments.