Skip to main content
Report this ad

Jonathan Homrighausen's light bulb and the is-ought problem


The lamp post at The Queen Bean

First the is-ought argument and the fallacy of reification will be defined, then Jonathan Homrighausen’s ingenious light bulb argument will be briefly summarized, then somewhat briefly answered.  If the answer does not suffice, comment to the article.


Follow my discussion with Jonathan! :)
The following is a more systematic approach to the current article:
Justified true belief and knowledge of moral truth


Is-Ought Problem

The Is-Ought, or Naturalistic Fallacy--"the deduction of an 'ought' from an 'is' ...  An example of a naturalistic fallacy in this sense would be to conclude Social Darwinism from the theory of evolution by natural selection, and of the reverse naturalistic fallacy to argue that the immorality of survival of the fittest implies the theory of evolution is false." (wiki).


Fallacy of Reification

The Fallacy of Reification--"when an abstraction (abstract belief or hypothetical construct) is treated as if it were a concrete, real event, or physical entity," (wiki).

This is highly relevant in apologetics.  Skeptics argue that those who believe in moral truth, who ground it in God's nature, are committing the pathetic fallacy--giving God human attributes, making God in our image, and assuming as real what is only a fantasy which does not correspond to reality (fallacy of reification).

Humanists or naturalists believe in groundless (Godless) moral truth (fallacy of reification), believing that nature is the source of real purpose (pathetic fallacy), though they do not generally claim that nature has the attribute of "meaningful".


Jonathan's Light Bulb Argument

A friend, Jonathan Homrighausen, recently elected president of Modesto Junior College’s Philosophical Society, compares moral truth to the standards of a properly working light bulb.  He argues that, just as one does not need a Platonic light bulb Form in order for there to be true standards for a properly working light bulb, one does not need a Platonic human Form (a God) in order for there to be true standards for a properly relating human.  He first presented this argument when we were at coffee at The Queen Bean (the light bulb was then inside a lamp post at the Queen Bean, much like the lamp in the image at top right), but it recently came up again on Facebook (in the form of a light bulb).  The following is an attempt at a reply:

Reply to the Light Bulb Argument

You cannot go from ought to is, or from is to ought without committing the fallacy of reification.

Is-Ought Fallacy.  That there is a light bulb (that there is a God--must grant this for the sake of argument even if you doubt it), does not mean it works properly (does not mean he relates properly)--to suggest that it/he does, by its/his mere existence, is to create (reify) the definition of working/relating properly.  It is a made up (reified) standard.  When we're talking about maps (ought) and territory (is)--where the map is a map of how the territory ought to be--it would be like saying "Here is some territory--let's map it and claim that this is how the territory ought to be".  This is the sort of fallacy made by naturalists like Sam Harris, who attempt to derive the ought by mapping how imperfect humans purpose.  This is a fallacy because how we purpose, is not necessarily how we ought to purpose.  In order for moral truth to count as moral truth and not just moral opinion, we must avoid going from is to ought.

Ought-Is Fallacy.  That there is a standard for working/relating properly, does not indicate that a properly working light bulb or a properly relating God exists (first comes the idea, then comes the light bulb--this is not true with maps and territory, the first hint that a light bulb, or any other invention, is not going to go very far as an analogy—the light bulb is a tool given purpose by humans—its purpose is not “true” purpose), nor does it magically bring it/him into existence (does not "reify" it/him).  So it is wrong to say the Golden Rule's presence in every culture in history necessarily indicates there is a God to which it corresponds.  When we're talking about maps (ought) and territory (is)--where the map is a map of how the territory ought to be--it would be like saying "Here is a map--the existence of this map must mean that the territory it charts actually exists."  However, we know there are fictional maps--like the ones drawn by J.R.R. Tolkein for "The Lord of the Rings".  This is the sort of fallacy made by existentialists like Sartre, who demanded that we fudge some maps, even if there is a true map available.  This is a fallacy because made up purpose is not true purpose.  In order for moral truth to count as moral truth and not just moral opinion, we must avoid going from ought to is.


A moral standard is justified if it answers the question of every theory in Ethics:  “How and why should we be or behave with the Other and self?”  If the answer does not describe a real being, then it is not a true answer, because it does not describe anything in reality; it does not correspond to anything (to insist that it is still a true answer is to “reify” or make up that to which it supposedly corresponds).  Humans were evolved by natural selection, not invented by humans, like the light bulb.  Humans give the light bulb purpose, the light bulb does not possess any purpose other than that given it by humans.  Natural selection cannot give purpose—only that which values can give purpose.  If there is true purpose for humans, rather than purpose assigned by humans (like a light bulb’s human-assigned purpose), then the answer to that Ethics question must describe a real being who always is and does what we should be and do.  It must describe eternal, uncreated, essential purposing/valuing (that is why theistic voluntarism is false—assigned value/purpose is not true value/purpose, whether assigned by humans or God).  If there is no such being, the answer may be justified, but it is not true.  The answer is true only if it corresponds to a real being—its truth/correspondence is not derived from its moral justification (cannot go from ought to is).  Being justified does not make the answer correspond to a real being (ought-is).  On the other side of the same coin, corresponding to a real being does not make the answer justified (is-ought).  The answer is justified only if it answers the question—it is not morally justified by its correspondence/existence (cannot go from is to ought).  The answer must be both justified (by virtue of answering the question), and it must be true (by virtue of corresponding to a real being).

Has Jonathan's argument been sufficiently answered?  Discuss.

Here is a different attempt at a reply:  Jonathan's lightbulb and the science of morality

For more info:
Is your church or other group teaching apologetics?
Do you have an apologetics question?
Would you like to share the reasons you believe?
     E-mail Maryann


Report this ad