The Blue Chair Analogy

September 21, 2006

Today was a fun day in my humanities class. A very fun day. Why? Because we did some hard core philosophizing. And you all know how I love philosophizing.

We discussed Plato’s Euthyphro (if you haven’t read it, I wouldn’t advise, but if you have, god bless you!). The whole point of this dialogue, in a nutshell, is to define piety and impiety. Though, in the end, Socrates (the protagonist of Euth.) spins Euthyphro on his head so much that he doesn’t even know which way is north.

I won’t bore you with all the intricicacies of Plato’s / Socrates’ argument. To be honest, the arguments don’t interest me. Except for one.

Socrates poses the question, “Do the gods love something because it is pious, or is that thing pious because the gods love it.” Now, if you’re like me, at this point you’re scratching your head and going “huh?” Just read that a few more times and it should sink in.

Sunk in yet? If not, let me explain in normal (read useful) language. He’s asking something to the affect of “did that A paper get an A because it IS an A paper, or is it an A paper because it got that grade?” Does the “A-ness” precede the grading of it (you know when you start seeing hyphenated words with -ness attached that your in philosophy land).

Sure, whatever, who cares. Platonic ideals and all that jazz. What’s the real world application (because god knows philosophy is no good unless you can do something with it).

Lets take the original example that Plato gave: Do the gods love something because it is pious, or is that thing pious because the gods love it. If it’s the latter, then we need to gods in order to tell what is pious or what isn’t. If it’s the former, quite frankly, then we don’t need the gods. We too can tell if something is pious via reason.

This led in my class to the question of how something could “just be pious” without something (preferably a god) making it so. A confusing question, I must admit. At least, when looked at from a mythic religious creator perspective. It sounds like the nontheist is making the “turtle” argument (it’s turtles all the way up and all the way down) when they say that humans are “just that way” (ie they can tell right from wrong because they just can).

This is where I stepped in and did a little scientific heavy lifting (I’m the “skeptic” of the class). I pointed to a blue chair and gave the common philosophical question of, “Is that chair blue because there is an inherent quality of blueness in it, or because we percieve it to be blue.” Let me make a clarifying statement: I’m not talking about linguistics here. That would be an entirely different argument. I’m not talking about the fact that the word “blue” is completely socially constructed and that we have no way of knowing if you and I even see the same “blue” and that the word blue doesn’t even exist in the physical world.

I’m talking about the blue that you see. The blue that arises in your consciousness. That blue doesn’t exist either. Think about it. Yes, the certain wavelength of light does exist. But the color blue that we perceive has correlates to that wavelength, but does not in any way define that wavelength. We just evolved (or our eyes evolved) to see the color “blue” when that wavelength strikes them. Another animal may see something completely different from the blue we see. Other animals may hear and smell in “blue.” (for more on this, check out Dawkins’ brilliant exposition on the reality of how we view the world vs. how the world actually is). [Note: We could say that some people (the colorblind) don’t see the color blue at all, but that’s a defect of their biology, therefore leading to a different subjective reality.]

Therefore, and this is the crux of the argument about morals I’m about to make, even though there is no color blue as we perceive it “out there” in the objective universe, that does not mean that we cannot agree on the color blue. Our common biology allows us to define certain objects giving off a certain wavelength of light as blue.

Now, let me propose an (imperfect) analogy. Just as the color blue does not exist in the objective universe, the ideas of piety and impiety (or good and evil) do not exist in the objective universe. But this does not mean that we cannot agree, due to our common biology and culture, about certain gradations of good and evil. Though it may not be “objectively” good to not kill another person, thanks to our shared biological intuitions and social norms, we can agree on certain “rights and wrongs” just as we can agree on the color blue. Add to that the “color-blindness” angle, and we can see how some people just aren’t good. They go out and kill with no moral pangs at all. This is not mean we throw the good of all humanity out just because these few people have a moral “defect.”

And thus the argument of “how can one be good without god” falls to the wayside.

At least, it would if I could articulate the argument in my head into a slightly more cogent one on paper.

And yes, it is more complicated than that (to quote Ze Frank). But I’m only covering the physiosocial angle. All the other angles I leave for you to explore.

I hope you enjoyed this jaunt through philosophy land. And you thought philosophy was completely useless! Silly! :)



One Response to “The Blue Chair Analogy”

  1. omg, i just had flashbacks of the beginning of nichomachean ethics (aristotle’s)

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