Can Evolutionary Biology and Naturalism Provide a Foundation for Morality?

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From Tom Stoppard’s play “The Hard Problem”

Naturalism, physicalism, and materialism are synonyms. They are names for a truncated metaphysics that omits any notion of transcendence and divinity. Someone might try to take dualism seriously without God; a dualism that posits material reality, and consciousness as a separate substance with its own substantial reality. But this would mean recognizing that there is something nonphysical and invisible that cannot be explained by science and operates in independence from purely physical forces. In other words, a spiritual reality. Most materialists recognize this and have been leery of even using the word “consciousness.” At the present moment, for some reason, some percentage of analytic philosophers are willing to use David Chalmers’ phrase “the hard problem” to refer to the puzzle of how subjective awareness could arise from the lump of meat in a sentient creature’s head. Positing a giant mystery at the center of human existence is a dangerous game for a materialist. They will find the hard problem to be an indigestible lump that spells the death knell for their physicalist complacency. By accepting that it is a problem at all, they are effectively admitting defeat. If the hard problem were a gift, they would be wise to return to sender. Daniel Dennett puts it thus: “I adopt the apparently dogmatic rule that dualism is to be avoided at all costs. It is not that I think I can give a knock-down proof that dualism, in all its forms, is false or incoherent, but that, given the 2way that dualism wallows in mystery, accepting dualism is giving up.”[1] Continue reading

Belief vs Knowledge and Plato’s Tripartite Soul

Plato suggested that if a person were to be cut open a homunculus,[1] a lion and a many-headed beast would be revealed. These creatures represent the three different kinds of soul (psyche) out of which someone is composed. In Greek they are Logos, Thumos, and Epithumia.

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Logos (reason) is symbolized by a little person.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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If God’s Plan Is For Us To Determine Our Own Plan, Why Do We Need God? The Bullet-Point Version

Either God, the divine, the supernatural, and the transcendent exist or they do not. If they do not, then what is left is alternatively called “naturalism, physicalism, or materialism.” These are all synonyms and they imply that all that really ultimately exists are atoms and molecules. A naturalistic universe is one that can be fully described by science, at least in principle. If something cannot be measured and quantified, it is not objectively true and should be eliminated from one’s ontology, in this view.

  • Naturalism is irretrievably nihilistic. If naturalism is true, then value does not exist. Value cannot be measured. And neither can beauty, love, or goodness. None of those things can be measured or even clearly defined. Quotation from Anna Karenina, Part 4, Chapter 10:

‘But,’ said Sergey Ivanovitch, smiling subtly, and addressing Karenin, ‘one must allow that to weigh all the advantages and disadvantages of classical and scientific studies is a difficult task, and the question which form of education was to be preferred would not have been so quickly and conclusively decided if there had not been in favour of classical education, as you expressed it just now, its moral—disons le mot—anti-nihilist influence.’

‘Undoubtedly.’

‘If it had not been for the distinctive property of antinihilistic influence on the side of classical studies, we should have considered the subject more, have weighed the arguments on both sides,’ said Sergey Ivanovitch with a subtle smile, ‘we should have given elbow-room to both tendencies. But now we know that these little pills of classical learning possess the medicinal property of anti-nihilism, and we boldly prescribe them to our patients.… But what if they had no such medicinal property?’ he wound up humorously. Continue reading

Tit for Tat

1No matter which class I am teaching, for quite some time the first reading assigned has been an article on Goedel’s Theorem. The reason is to emphasize that any attempt to make an axiomatic system of any moderate complexity consistent and complete (able to determine whether any statement within the system is either true or false) will fail. This is because, at least when it comes to mathematics, Goedelian propositions will be generated by the system that are true, can be seen to be true, but are not provable. Goedel’s stand-in for all such propositions is the statement “this statement is not provable within this axiomatic system.” If this statement is true, then it is not provable. If it were to be false, and was provable, then it would again be proved that it is not provable, since you would have just proved a statement that says it is unprovable! I add to this that the axioms upon which axiomatic systems are based are by definition, not provable, their truth being self-evident. So, axiomatic systems contain unprovable truths coming and going.

When teaching ethics, after covering Gödel, the first thing I do is to point out our intuitive understanding of the truth and validity of reciprocity/justice/fairness. If someone were to give you a cup of your favorite coffee at the appropriate time and you were to punch them in the face, barring some convoluted back story, this would be grossly unjust. The truth of reciprocity is captured by phrases like “one good turn deserves another” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In practice, no normal person doubts the truth of that notion.

Fairness and reciprocity are axiomatically true. Their truth is self-evident. If anyone claims to doubt their truth, this person is almost certainly a liar and a hypocrite, at least on this topic. When this hypothetical person approaches another in a spirit of friendliness and politeness, only to be greeted with unbridled rudeness and hostility, he is likely to feel offended or at least to question the mental stability of the other person.

Ludwig Wittgenstein had some sensible things to say on topics like these.  He spends a few pages of his aphoristic writings wondering what it would mean to be mistaken that one was speaking or writing in English. There is not really a standard of certainty that goes beyond knowing such a thing. Part of his point is to throw a monkey wrench into the useless, theoretical musings of his analytic philosophy contemporaries. Continue reading

Evolution 2.0 by Perry Marshall

Evolution 2.0 by Perry Marshall

Materialism and the mechanistic world-view – the idea that the everything is a machine operating in terms of mindless, mechanical forces – has severe nihilistic implications. An alternative to this view is that the universe is alive, and that consciousness permeates it – a view called ‘panpsychism.” When his wife began to think that panpsychism might be true, Sam Harris, a famous anti-religion atheist. initially told her to remain silent about her views in case she lost all street cred. When she asked scientists she knew their own views, it turned out that many of them were also secret believers in panpsychism.

The fact that Annaka Harris and the scientists thought it necessary to lie by omission is troubling. It shows that science, as a human activity, can suffer from the usual human tendencies, one of which is the desire to belong to a group and to reach for social status. Groups define themselves by who they exclude as much as their positive beliefs, and they reward with the maintenance or increase of status and punish by demotion those who dissent. Hence, the creation of orthodoxies.

Another oft-commented upon human tendency is the desire to have something to worship. If religion is abandoned, a religious attitude will usually simply be taken towards something non-religious. Communism was atheistic so the Russians simply worshipped Stalin instead, and the Chinese turned Mao Zedong into a demi-God in their imaginations. I have met an engineer with such reverence for science and his own status as a scientist that he is tremendously conceited about his ability to think about philosophical, or any other, topics beyond the scope of his expertise. He definitely seems to see himself as a priest of science – an idea that Francis Bacon, credited with contributing to “the scientific method” actually championed, including the idea that scientists should wear special robes to distinguish themselves from hoi polloi. Continue reading

Does the Concept of Metaphysical Freedom Make Sense?

Does the Concept of Metaphysical Freedom Make Sense?

1“Michael” writes: “Freedom and determinism are empty categories; they cannot be employed to distinguish any sequence of events from any other.”

Logically, this could be because all events are free or because all events are determined. It seems likely that the writer thinks all events are causally determined.

Presumably by “events” the writer includes “actions.” However, without the concept of freedom there are no actions per se. Actions are performed by an actor, an agent who is a center of decision-making. In determinism, there are no agents. There is only a series of “sequences of events” – a constant stream beginning when time began and ending when the physical universe ceases to exist. Each event is the result of a prior event in mechanical fashion, and each event will cause some future event. Continue reading

Social Justice: an Analysis

Cosmic justice: infantile and nihilistic

Social class, home environment, genetics and other factors all contribute to differences between individuals. People differ in looks, height, income, social status, morality, various kinds of intelligence and athleticism, musical ability, industriousness, discipline, and nearly every other human characteristic. Differences in culture, history, and geography generate differences between groups. Being born into a culture that emphasizes hard work, education, conscientiousness, and thrift is a tremendous advantage.

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Thomas Sowell

“Social justice” advocates describe the resulting disparate achievements as “inequalities” with the suggestion that these represent some kind of injustice. Unequal achievement is treated as though it must be the result of discrimination, “privilege” or some other unfairness, while it is in fact the inevitable consequence of differences between individuals and groups. These differences will exist no matter how a society is organized barring a race to the bottom where the laziest, least talented individuals set the bar and every achievement that surpassed that pitiful measure got confiscated and distributed – removing any incentive to do anything much at all. Continue reading

“Folk Psychology:” you are buying into a crazy theory if you use this term

“Folk Psychology:” you are buying into a crazy theory if you use this term

Folk psychology is the derogatory term used by physicalists for our normal natural language (e.g., English, Spanish, etc.) way of describing mental states and explaining why people behave in certain ways.

E.g., she didn’t go to the concert on Saturday because she hates Taylor Swift.

Some materialists believe that those who believe in the existence of thoughts, beliefs, desires, motives and other mental states are victims of “folk psychology,” an unscientific attitude that will in due course be replaced by ex­planations in terms of the activities of nerves or brain states.

For those people, folk psychology is a kind of superstition, like belief in demons, and it will be left be­hind by the onward march of scientific understanding.

The alternative to folk psychology

The alternative to folk psychology is supposed to be scientific descriptions of the brain. Instead of talking about beliefs, we will describe brain states, or nerve firings. Instead of saying “Timmy likes Sally,” we will say “Timmy is in brain state G.”

Objections

There is no evidence of any kind that natural language descriptions of mental phenomena will be replaced by scientific descriptions of the activity of the brain. The claim that this will happen is complete science fiction at this point in time.

It does no good to complain that I am talking about beliefs and desires when there is no alternative at all to doing so. It would be like accusing me of being old-fashioned for driving to work instead of teleporting. Teleportation does not actually exist and may never exist. There is nothing scientific about contrasting reality with science fiction. Continue reading

The Chinese Room Thought Experiment by John Searle

The Chinese Room Thought Experiment by John Searle

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John Searle

John Searle introduced the Chinese Room thought experiment in 1980 order to give people a way to picture the difference between what computers are doing and the human mind.

The thought experiment was rendered necessary because many analytic philosophers have promoted CTM – the computer theory of mind. CTM is almost certainly not true. Computers are machines and machines are rule-following devices. Goedel’s Theorem and Alan Turing’s analysis of the Halting Problem prove that even mathematics is not simply a rule-following exercise. If it were, then mathematics could be formalized – meaning it could be reduced to the manipulation of symbols without having to worry about what those symbols mean. In fact, in such a scenario, “symbols” per se are eliminated and simply replaced with zeros and ones. Mathematical formalism would mean that truth is irrelevant, but Goedel’s Theorem relies on truth at crucial moments in its proof. The human mind is capable of “seeing” or perceiving truth, at times, such as with Goedelian propositions, and self-evident axioms such as P = P, in a way that cannot be reduced to rule-following and algorithms. Because of these issues, no machine can replace human mathematicians for solving the outstanding problems of mathematics. And the halting problem demonstrated that non-algorithmic (i.e., non-computer) methods are necessary for testing algorithms. The process cannot be automated and thus the human mind is capable of doing something other than following algorithms.

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Berdyaev: Why God and Personality Must be the Highest Ideal

Berdyaev: Why God and Personality Must be the Highest Ideal

Berdyaev points out that if God and the individual human Personality are not someone’s highest ideal then that person is effectively promising to sacrifice the individual in the name of that supposedly higher ideal. The logic is simple and undeniable.

If someone says that under any circumstances, no matter what competing goods there may be or seem to be, the Personality is sacrosanct and to be protected at all costs, then that person is elevating Personality to the highest level of their morality in the manner that Berdyaev identifies as necessary and has abandoned his former allegiances.

Alternatives to the genuine highest good include the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, well-being, just plain “happiness,” social justice, feminism, equality, the nation, workers of the world, rationalism, science, and progress.

Every one of those “goods” is a murderous cult bent on the immolation of the human individual. If any object to this accusation, let him agree that Personality is paramount and beats out all competing ideals and that his former highest good is now secondary and always, in every situation, to be trumped by God and Personality. Continue reading