Saturday, February 23, 2008

Appearing in New York

Important Changes Below!

A last-minute event has been finalized after weeks of uncertain planning. In less than two weeks I will be debating the possibility of ethics without god at NYU on Monday night, March 3 (2008), at 7pm. This may be my last time in New York City for a great long while. The event is sponsored by a new group there formed by Zachary Novetsky called The S.H.A.R.P Lecture Series (Science, History, Arts, Religion and Philosophy). They don't yet have a website.

The event was to be held in a reserved room at the NYU student center (in lower Manhattan), better known as the Kimmel Center, but the buzz is now so enormous it was moved to a much larger venue: the new NYU Philosophy Building (at 5 Washington Place near Mercer Street in room 101. Attendance will be free to all. Just explain why you are there and you will get in (though a valid government photo ID might be required).

I will defend the position that there are true moral facts without God, drawing on material from my book Sense and Goodness without God and my Michigan Talk.
Rabbi Yehuda Sarna will argue that we cannot discover true moral facts (I know, I thought that was weird too). I will be selling and signing my book afterward.

To get to NYU see the NYU Travel Guide. To navigate the campus see the NYU Campus Map. The Philosophy Building is on the corner of Washington Place and Mercer Street (with the entrance at 5 Washington Place), as indicated on the map here (the old venue, the Kimmel Center, is below Washington Square Park, but the new venue is east of the Park).


kilo papa said...

Any chance a transcript of this debate will be available online?

michael said...

I was at last night's NYU debate. I'm the guy who asked the question of the rabbi about moral relativism and female genital mutilation.

Don't you find the stance of people like the rabbi to be, well, almost intellectually bankrupt?

In any case, I bought your book and look forward to reading it. Lastly, I will soon be hosting an internet radio talk show about atheism and the effects of religion and faith on society and culture. Perhaps once the show is up and running, you'd consider being a guest... ?

Michael Dorian

I am the blogging "voice" for the NYC Atheists (

Shawn Wilkinson said...

Is the rabbi a moral skeptic (eg. no one has moral knowledge) or some other version of moral anti-realism? I'm not/wasn't in new York, so I wouldn't know his position.

It sounds interesting, and though people would write off the meta-ethical idea of reason being absent of moral knowledge, the arguments are not so "ho-hum".

Just my two cents.

Richard Carrier said...

I'm not really sure what Rabbi Sarna's metaethical position was (we didn't explore technical categories that way). He did take a somewhat typical postmodernist position, not only with regard to moral knowledge but with regard to scientific knowledge, too. But it wasn't clear whether he was defending moral skepticism (moral facts might exist but can never be known), or moral relativism (moral facts just are whatever moral beliefs you commit to), or some other variety of moral antirealism (e.g. there are no moral facts, only opinions).

In short, he argued (and I was told a recording might one day appear online) that there are no moral absolutes because we can never be sure our morals are "the" morals and therefore it is "wrong" (in a socially pragmatic sense) to impose any moral values on anyone but "good" (again in a socially pragmatic sense, though also perhaps in a personally pragmatic sense) to adopt some moral system, it just doesn't matter (too much) what system that is.

It was difficult to get this much clear, so by the time a path became evident the debate was over, but I think (and did start to articulate near the end) that his position actually, ultimately, reduces to mine, he just didn't see it.

In other words, I also argue (though not in these exact same terms) that we should adopt moral values that will in the long run be good for us (personally pragmatic), and this actually requires adopting values conducive to some limited measure of social harmony (socially pragmatic), and that when we start from those premises, there is only one moral system that becomes empirically defensible (and science can discover it).

His response was that we can never know for sure (and he clearly intended this to be a sweeping charge as applicable to all scientific facts as moral facts, though he evidently had greater skepticism about sciences of highly complex systems like human psychology, and rightly regarded any proposed moral science of such a kind).

But as I pointed out, he sure seemed to know for sure several moral facts, such as the universal moral value of humility. He hedged quite a bit around that to avoid admitting he was agreeing with me that there are universal, empirically knowable, moral facts (and thus really only disagreeing with me on what those facts were, though I don't think on the final analysis he would have continued to disagree with me on that point for long).

I find the situation similar with radical skepticism in all its forms, such as ancient Pyrrhonism: they go on and on denying the existence of knowledge or knowable truths, but then go on and on defending knowable truths, but calling them something else (all modern eliminativists do the same thing). Thus it really just becomes a semantic labyrinth that masks much ado about nothing: they are actually agreeing with us on every substantive point, but can't see how because they call everything by different names.

For example, many ancient skeptics denied the existence of "knowledge" but then called what we mean by knowledge "assent to the likely" and defended the latter. I say tomayto, they say tomahto. I find the very same silliness in eliminativist thinking about propositions, where they deny the existence of "truth" but defend something called "epistemic virtue" which is, in fact, just what the rest of us mean by the word "truth" (see Giving the Churchlands a Fairer Shake).

I suspect any extended (as in many-years-long) debate between Sarna and me would end in much the same way.