Friday, August 1, 2008

The God of Purple Teeth

As part of a wider discussion of bioethics and god(s) on Alexander Pruss's blog, here is a follow-up comment to a post on by Pruss himself:

For every policy argument makes an unverifiable normative claim. Consider for the instance the sketch of argument: "Fluoride in water improves the health of teeth, and has no negative side-effects. Therefore, we should fluoridize the water." The argument is missing, among other things, a crucial premise about the value of health. If health is not valuable, then conclusion is irrelevant. (Compare the formally identical: "Dye X in water improves the purpleness of teeth, and has no negative side-effects. Therefore we should add dye X to water.") Now the claim that health is valuable is not a verifiable claim.
I say push this purple dye case further by adding the following supposition: there exists a widely-held and longstanding religious tradition holding that centuries ago a prophet of the one true god came to earth. When he taught, his teeth glowed with a purplish hue, and he explained that this was a manifestation of the divine. A devotional practice subsequently sprung up whereby consecrated purple dye is given to believers, making their teeth purple. They sincerely believe the process involves a divine manifestation, and that when the prophet returns to save the world, he will "know his own" by the purple of their teeth.

Suppose philosophers -- seekers of capital-T truth -- of this hypothetical world took up the original question of whether purple dye belongs in the water supply. Does the existence of the religious tradition, with its deeply- and widely-believed claims about consecrated purple dye and purple teeth, convince them above and beyond the premises laid out in the question as Pruss gave it? Does it add information that is compelling to a seeker of truth?

Whereas a philosopher somehow thrown into the question of water fluoridation would face, it seems to me, a much smaller burden in pressing the value judgment. He would, with little fear of embarrassment or parochialism, assert that healthy teeth are better than rotting teeth. If pressed, he could show that it has at least some claim to capital-T truth.

Some value judgments are less controversial than others -- by which I mean not (only) politically acceptable but undeniable, e.g., needless suffering is bad, health is better than sickness, non-rotting teeth are better than rotting teeth. I think we would find it difficult to locate people who genuinely believe otherwise vis-a-vis these assertions of value. Beyond this, I think philosophers could demonstrate the truth of these more or less firmly.

For all that it may still be that sickness is better than health and that rotting teeth are better than healthy teeth, and that rotting, purple teeth are best of all. Such a determination does, in the end, rest on the answers to foundational questions about the nature of the universe. If the universe was created by and remains under the control of a god who favors purple teeth, or rotting ones, or crackers that have been ritually sanctified, or certain landmarks in present-day Israel, much follows about what we ought to do and how we ought to think about what we do. In other words I agree with Pruss when he says in the original post:
[W]hen we are talking about appropriate treatment of the beginning and end of life, it is plausible that the question of the relation between life and God is highly relevant. ... if ethics, especially the ethics that deals with the beginning and end of life, could do without God, that should be quite surprising to a theist.
Since we don't capital-K know anything at all about god, even whether he exists, god is two things at once when it comes to bioethics (and all questions of value), and the two things don't hang together well: highly relevant and completely unhelpful.

Given this, I think we have to foreground our naked value commitments, keep them as grounded and basic as possible, defend them as neutrally and sensibly as we can, and in short, work with what we have: what we can verify, what produces the least controversy, what conforms with Occam's Razor. This will exclude assertions about the god of purple teeth, among others, however certain and sincere those assertions.


Alexander R Pruss said...

As to the purple teeth prophet, what evidential weight is held by the religious tradition will need to be evaluated based on the specifics of the case. What evidence is there that the alleged prophet was a prophet? Do we have any reliable testimony, for instance, that he worked miracles? Or that he made predictions that non-trivially and surprisingly came true? Or did the later religious tradition exhibits traits that are better explained by supposing it to be of divine origin than of merely human origin?

The mere existence of a religious tradition asserting p is very weak if any evidence for p. (I think it is some evidence, because I am inclined to think that for any proposition p, the fact that p is believed by someone slightly raises the probability of p. But that's a rather controversial view.) But the intelligent person offering a religiously based argument is not, or should not, be arguing: "There exists a religious tradition that says p. Hence p." Rather, she should be saying: "There is a religious tradition that says p. We have such-and-such reason to think this religious tradition is correct. Hence p."

Now, you may have studied the apologetic works of the best defenders of each of the major religions and found them all wanting. If so, you will dispute that the "such-and-such" reason is in fact sufficient in the case of any of the major religions. But this is a substantive argument, requiring serious point-by-point engagement with these apologetic works. It begs the question to simply assume that these apologetic arguments fail.

Dale said...

AP, I disbelieve in all the same gods you do, plus one god more.

I'm not prepared to provide an annotated bibliography, but I have read a fair amount of apologetics, mostly Christian and also some Muslim.

Nearly all of it falls flat before it really gets started since the proofs of god's existence are weak and unconvincing (or so they strike me). Without a good basis for believing in god in the first place, it's pointless to spend a lot of time and effort on apologetics.

But to the point: certainly if there is a reasonable basis for believing that god exists (whether the purple teeth god, the Christian god, the Muslim god, or whatever), and beyond that, a reasonable line of apologetics that establishes the god's purposes, priorities, plans, etc., then this would be relevant to bioethics.

I think if there were such a train of evidence and reason in place, it would be perverse to question the relevance of the One True God to bioethics (in the way that it is perverse to doubt plate techtonics, the germ theory of disease, or, drawing from a different well, the idea that health is better than sickness). I think committed Christians and commmitted Muslims and committed Hindus (etc.) think they have this.

I think they all have something, but not what they think they have: they have more or less educated guesses to which they are emotionally and socially attached.

Affordable Teeth Whitening said...

"Fluoride in water improves the health of teeth, and has no negative side-effects. Therefore, we should fluoridize the water." I dont support this at all fluoride is a poison that accumulates in our bones and has been associated with cancer more than a few times! it is a is a corrosive poison that will produce serious effects on a long range basis.
So now way does it have "no negative side-effects."

Great post though!