My questions for Leah Libresco

Leah Libresco made waves earlier this year when, after years of blogging for the Patheos atheism portal, she announced her conversion to Roman Catholicism.  Shortly after that, in late July, she attended the same CFAR one-week camp as me, and it was a privilege to spend time with her: she’s smart, energetic, thoughtful and very good fun.  She has also been incredibly helpful coordinating post-camp activities to keep us all in touch and help us help each other achieve our goals.  Oh, and I think the vowel is pronounced the same way as “see ya”; I was told “not like Princess Leia”, which immediately meant I could no longer remember how Princess Leia’s name was pronounced.

Near the end of minicamp, late one evening, I asked her if she had spent much time arguing about religion with fellow minicampers. I tried to persuade her that she should, but I never got to pursue my own line of argument in detail—the conversation moved on and it was all too interesting to drag it back!  So I’m setting it out again here in the hope that she’ll have time to respond.

I confess I don’t fully understand her justification for converting, and I know I’m not alone: “it seems that her justification is opaque and too complicated for one blog post” wrote Vlad Chituc. In general, though, I find it’s a mistake to try to get into religious arguments “from the inside”—you end up playing a game of self-referential Twister whose rules you neither know nor care about. Instead I wanted to start from the outside, with a sequence of hypotheticals.  Leah believes that there is something about morality that implies a god.  I wanted to know if any of the following hypothetical words are compatible with the absence of a god:

  • A world in which there is no life
  • A world in which there are only simple single celled animals
  • Multicellular animals
  • Mutualism, such as between flowers and bees
  • The kind of reciprocal altruism we observe in animal species
  • A species that is violent towards those who don’t sacrifice their own interests to further the interests of all
  • A species that is violent towards those who are not violent as above
  • A species that develops language, and uses it to talk about who will be punished and who will not
  • A species that uses the same kind of language as we do to talk about morality.

If I recall correctly, Leah accepted the compatibility of all of these worlds with godlessness except the last.

On the one hand, this is good—there is a clear path by which she believes the existence of a god is the historical cause of her belief in a good, as any good Bayesian requires.  I was worried that the argument would be entirely based on ideas in moral philosophy, not in things we could observe about the world—such an argument would hold in all my hypothetical worlds, not just the last one.

On the other hand, if this is the key to her argument, then it’s odd that so much of it is taken up with discussing moral philosophy, when what she should be entirely concerned with is evolutionary psychology, which would directly address the question of whether our current attitudes and language about morality can arise in a universe without a god.

Near the end of our discussion, she asked me: “do you think morality is more like a matter of taste, or more like math?” I didn’t get a chance to answer, which is one reason I wanted to write this blog post. As it happens, on metaethical matters I tend to agree with Joshua Greene. But what I really wanted to say was I’M ASKING THE QUESTIONS! Or to put it a less silly way, I’m happy to have a discussion about what I think about metaethics, but I don’t see how that relates to my efforts to understand what her position is using hypothetical questions.

I chose my questions exactly in order to try and step around the minefield of metaethics, because what I wanted to know was, is there something different about what we observe that is acting as evidence for a god here?