Helian Unbound

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  • Whither Morality?

    Posted on April 19th, 2015 Helian 3 comments

    The evolutionary origins of morality and the reasons for its existence have been obvious for over a century.  They were no secret to Edvard Westermarck when he published The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas in 1906, and many others had written books and papers on the subject before his book appeared.  However, our species has a prodigious talent for ignoring inconvenient truths, and we have been studiously ignoring that particular truth ever since.

    Why is it inconvenient?  Let me count the ways!  To begin, the philosophers who have taken it upon themselves to “educate” us about the difference between good and evil would be unemployed if they were forced to admit that those categories are purely subjective, and have no independent existence of their own.  All of their carefully cultivated jargon on the subject would be exposed as gibberish.  Social Justice Warriors and activists the world over, those whom H. L. Mencken referred to collectively as the “Uplift,” would be exposed as so many charlatans.  We would begin to realize that the legions of pious prigs we live with are not only an inconvenience, but absurd as well.  Gaining traction would be a great deal more difficult for political and religious cults that derive their raison d’être from the fabrication and bottling of novel moralities.  And so on, and so on.

    Just as they do today, those who experienced these “inconveniences” in one form or another pointed to the drawbacks of reality in Westermarck’s time.  For example, from his book,

    Ethical subjectivism is commonly held to be a dangerous doctrine, destructive to morality, opening the door to all sorts of libertinism.  If that which appears to each man as right or good, stands for that which is right or good; if he is allowed to make his own law, or to make no law at all; then, it is said, everybody has the natural right to follow his caprice and inclinations, and to hinder him from doing so is an infringement on his rights, a constraint with which no one is bound to comply provided that he has the power to evade it.  This inference was long ago drawn from the teaching of the Sophists, and it will no doubt be still repeated as an argument against any theorist who dares to assert that nothing can be said to be truly right or wrong.  To this argument may, first, be objected that a scientific theory is not invalidated by the mere fact that it is likely to cause mischief.  The unfortunate circumstance that there do exist dangerous things in the world, proves that something may be dangerous and yet true.  another question is whether any scientific truth really is mischievous on the whole, although it may cause much discomfort to certain people.  I venture to believe that this, at any rate, is not the case with that form of ethical subjectivism which I am here advocating.

    I venture to believe it as well.  In the first place, when we accept the truth about morality we make life a great deal more difficult for people of the type described above.  Their exploitation of our ignorance about morality has always been an irritant, but has often been a great deal more damaging than that.  In the 20th century alone, for example, the Communist and Nazi movements, whose followers imagined themselves at the forefront of great moral awakenings that would lead to the triumph of Good over Evil, resulted in the needless death of tens of millions of people.  The victims were drawn disproportionately from among the most intelligent and productive members of society.

    Still, just as Westermarck predicted more than a century ago, the bugaboo of “moral relativism” continues to be “repeated as an argument” in our own day.  Apparently we are to believe that if the philosophers and theologians all step out from behind the curtain after all these years and reveal that everything they’ve taught us about morality is so much bunk, civilized society will suddenly dissolve in an orgy of rape and plunder.

    Such notions are best left behind with the rest of the impedimenta of the Blank Slate.  Nothing could be more absurd than the notion that unbridled license and amorality are our “default” state.  One can quickly disabuse ones self of that fear by simply reading the comment thread of any popular news website.  There one will typically find a gaudy exhibition of moralistic posing and pious one-upmanship.  I encourage those who shudder at the thought of such an unpleasant reading assignment to instead have a look at Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind.  As he puts it in the introduction to his book,

    I could have titled this book The Moral Mind to convey the sense that the human mind is designed to “do” morality, just as it’s designed to do language, sexuality, music, and many other things described in popular books reporting the latest scientific findings.  But I chose the title The Righteous Mind to convey the sense that human nature is not just intrinsically moral, it’s also intrinsically moralistic, critical and judgmental… I want to show you that an obsession with righteousness (leading inevitably to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition.  It is a feature of our evolutionary design, not a bug or error that crept into minds that would otherwise be objective and rational.

    Haidt also alludes to a potential reason that some of the people already mentioned above continue to evoke the scary mirage of moral relativism:

    Webster’s Third New World Dictionary defines delusion as “a false conception and persistent belief in something that has no existence in fact.”  As an intuitionist, I’d say that the worship of reason is itself an illustration of one of the most long-lived delusions in Western history:  the rationalist delusion.  It’s the idea that reasoning is our most noble attribute, one that makes us like the gods (for Plato) or that brings us beyond the “delusion” of believing in gods (for the New Atheists).  The rationalist delusion is not just a claim about human nature.  It’s also a claim that the rational caste (philosophers or scientists) should have more power, and it usually comes along with a utopian program for raising more rational children.

    Human beings are not by nature moral relativists, and they are in no danger of becoming moral relativists merely by virtue of the fact that they have finally grasped what morality actually is.  It is their nature to perceive Good and Evil as real, independent things, independent of the subjective minds that give rise to them, and they will continue to do so even if their reason informs them that what they perceive is a mirage.  They will always tend to behave as if these categories were absolute, rather than relative, even if all the theologians and philosophers among them shout at the top of their lungs that they are not being “rational.”

    That does not mean that we should leave reason completely in the dust.  Far from it!  Now that we can finally understand what morality is, and account for the evolutionary origins of the behavioral predispositions that are its root cause, it is within our power to avoid some of the most destructive manifestations of moral behavior.  Our moral behavior is anything but infinitely malleable, but we know from the many variations in the way it is manifested in different human societies and cultures, as well as its continuous and gradual change in any single society, that within limits it can be shaped to best suit our needs.  Unfortunately, the only way we will be able to come up with an “optimum” morality is by leaning on the weak reed of our ability to reason.

    My personal preferences are obvious enough, even if they aren’t set in stone.  I would prefer to limit the scope of morality to those spheres in which it is indispensable for lack of a viable alternative.  I would prefer a system that reacts to the “Uplift” and unbridled priggishness and self-righteousness with scorn and contempt.  I would prefer an educational system that teaches the young the truth about what morality actually is, and why, in spite of its humble origins, we can’t get along without it if we really want our societies to “flourish.”  I know; the legions of those whose whole “purpose of life” is dependent on cultivating the illusion that their own versions of Good and Evil are the “real” ones stands in the way of the realization of these whims of mine.  Still, one can dream.

  • 21st Century Moral Philosophy Advances Boldly into the 19th Century

    Posted on April 13th, 2015 Helian No comments

    The 19th century?  I might just as well have said the 18th century.  Today’s moral philosophers, gazing timidly about amidst the rubble of the Blank Slate, have only recently realized that one is not rendered grossly and hopelessly immoral by virtue of merely suggesting the possibility that there is such a thing as human nature.  Indeed, some of them have even been daring enough to admit that there might be something to what the evolutionary psychologists have been telling them after all.  In terms of their own specialty, that means they have boldly advanced to the point that they can dare to acknowledge the existence of the “moral sense” that was proposed quite convincingly by Shaftesbury more than 300 years ago, and demonstrated logically by Hutcheson a bit later in a form that no one has come close to refuting to this day.  True, Shaftesbury and Hutcheson thought that God had concocted this “moral sense.”  We didn’t know where it really came from until Darwin came along and gently alluded to it in the context of his great theory, and that was in the 19th century.  One might even labor the point and say that we had to wait until the dawn of the 20th century before Westermarck came along and bluntly pointed out, for the benefit of those too dense to put two and two together,

    …there can be no moral truth in the sense in which this term is generally understood.  The ultimate reason for this is, that the moral concepts are based upon emotions, and that the contents of an emotion fall entirely outside the category of truth.

    Shortly thereafter, of course, the “men of science” concocted the Blank Slate debacle, and the darkness fell.  What we are witnessing today is the desultory attempts of moral philosophers, or at least a few of them, to pick up the pieces.  I recently ran across a link to an example that appeared shortly after the collapse of the Blank Slate orthodoxy at 3 Quarks Daily in an article on moral realism by Mike Lopresto.  Entitled A Darwinian Dilemma for the Realist Theories of Value, by Sharon Street, it appeared in the journal Philosophical Studies back in 2006.  Street opens with the following:

    Contemporary realist theories of value claim to be compatible with natural science. In this paper, I call this claim into question by arguing that Darwinian considerations pose a dilemma for these theories.  The main thrust of my argument is this. Evolutionary forces have played a tremendous role in shaping the content of human evaluative attitudes. The challenge for realist theories of value is to explain the relation between these evolutionary influences on our evaluative attitudes, on the one hand, and the independent evaluative truths that realism posits, on the other. Realism, I argue, can give no satisfactory account of this relation.

    A bit later, Street gets around to explaining exactly what she means by “evolutionary forces:”

    In his 1990 book Wise Choices, Apt Feelings, Allan Gibbard notes that his arguments “should be read as having a conditional form: If the psychological facts are roughly as I speculate, here is what might be said philosophically.”  I attach a similar caveat to my argument in this paper: If the evolutionary facts are roughly as I speculate, here is what might be said philosophically.  I try to rest my arguments on the least controversial, most well-founded evolutionary speculations possible.  But they are speculations nonetheless, and they, like some of Gibbard’s theorizing in Wise Choices, Apt Feelings, fall within a difficult and relatively new subfield of evolutionary biology known as evolutionary psychology.

    Obviously, Street still had a lively fear of the anathemas of the Blank Slate priesthood, carefully referring to evolutionary psychology as “mere speculation.”  One can place the collapse of the Blank Slate, at least as far as the popular media are concerned, at around the turn of the century, give or take a few years.  I doubt that she would have dared to write such heresies ten years earlier.  I certainly know of nothing similar that appeared in any of the philosophy rags prior to say, 1995.  Street continues,

    According to this subfield, human cognitive traits are (in some cases) just as susceptible to Darwinian explanation as human physical traits are (in some cases). For example, a cognitive trait such as the widespread human tendency to value the survival of one’s offspring may, according to evolutionary psychology, be just as susceptible to evolutionary explanation as physical traits such as our bipedalism or our having opposable thumbs.

    Having thus invited the lightening bolts, she then hurries to placate the offended gods of the Blank Slate, citing the familiar flim flam of two of its high priests, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin:

    There are many pitfalls that such evolutionary theorizing must avoid, the most important of which is the mistake of assuming that every observable trait (whether cognitive or physical) is an adaptation resulting from natural selection, as opposed to the result of any number of other complex (non-selective or only partially selective) processes that could have produced it.  It is more than I can do here to describe such pitfalls in depth or to defend at length the evolutionary claims that my argument will be based on. Instead, it must suffice to emphasize the hypothetical nature of my arguments, and to say that while I am skeptical of the details of the evolutionary picture I offer, I think its outlines are certain enough to make it well worth exploring the philosophical implications.

    To make a long story short, having thus established her own moral purity, Street feels safe enough to follow her “mere speculation” to its logical conclusions.  Noting that there are two “flavors” of moral realists, including the “naturalist” kind, who claim that, while value judgments may have evolutionary roots, natural selection favors “true morality,” and the “non-naturalists,” who deny any such connection, she proceeds to debunk both versions.  Noting the “striking continuity” between the more basic evaluative tendencies in other animals and our own evaluative judgments, she makes short work of the “non-naturalists.”  Somewhat more sophisticated arguments are demanded to deal with the “naturists,” who insist that our evolved natural predispositions “track” actual moral truths.  Street provides them, in very convincing form, in Section 6 of her paper, and I encourage readers who are daunted at the prospect of wading through the entire 48 pages to at least have a look at it.

    Now, however, as Alex might have put it in “A Clockwork Orange,” comes the weepy part of the story.  Just as Nietzsche predicted in his Human, All Too Human, having climbed up her philosophical ladder to get a glance at the truth, Street shrinks back from what she sees.  What she sees is that evolved human behavioral predispositions are the root cause of what we refer to as morality, and, as a result, Westermarck was right when he pointed out that moral judgments “fall entirely outside the category of truth.”  In the end, she can’t face the full implications of this truth.  Instead, she temporizes.  In her conclusion she writes,

    Now that there are creatures like us with marvelously complicated systems of valuings up and running, it is quite possible to come to value something because one recognizes that it has a value independent of oneself—not in the realist’s sense, but in an antirealist’s more modest sense.  Thus, although valuing ultimately came first, value grew to be able to stand partly on its own.  It grew to achieve its own, limited sort of priority over valuing—a priority that we can understand while at the same time being fully conscious of great biddings from the outside.

    Hurrah!  The poor, wooden puppet Pinocchio becomes a real boy after all!  The oppressive and ludicrous piety that prevails in modern academia is vindicated, and philosophers can continue to write blather about how moral emotions can acquire the magical power to jump out of mammal A’s skull, hop onto mammal B’s back, and prescribe to mammal B what he ought and ought not do.  Well, dear reader, we can forgive such regrettable weakness.  After all, many choice jobs in academia would be rendered absurd, and many frail and pious egos would be rendered laughable by a straight up dose of reality.  What of it?  At least we can now utter the phrase “human nature” without fear of being doused with ice water.  At least the philosophers have struggled back into the 19th century, and are almost on the same page with Darwin again.  Better to rejoice in the progress we have made than grieve over the imbecilities we must still endure.

  • Of Morality and Pizza Parlors

    Posted on April 4th, 2015 Helian No comments

    If you’re worried that the demise of religion implies the demise of morality, I suggest you search the term “Memories Pizza.” As it happens, Memories Pizza is (or was) a small business in the town of Walkerton, Indiana. By all accounts, its owners had never refused to serve gays, or uttered a harsh word about the gay community. Then, however, a reporter by the name of Alyssa Marino strolled in fishing for a story about Indiana’s recently enacted “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” Apparently attracted by the signage in the restaurant that made it obvious that the owners were Christians, Marino asked the proprietor a question that had never come up in the decade the business had been in business, and was unlikely to come up in the future; Would the business cater a gay wedding. The reply: “If a gay couple came in and wanted us to provide pizzas for their wedding, we would have to say no.”  Marino promptly wrote a story about her visit under the headline, “RFRA: First Michiana business to publicly deny same-sex service.”  This was a bit disingenuous, to say the least.  As Robbie Soave at Hit and Run put it,

    That headline implies two things that are false. The O’Connors had no intention of becoming the first Michiana business to do anything discriminatory with respect to gay people; they had merely answered a hypothetical question about what would happen if a gay couple asked them to cater a wedding. And the O’Connors had every intention of providing regular service to gay people—just not their weddings.

    No matter, the story went viral, provoking a furious (and threatening) response from the gay ingroup.  Hundreds of reviews suddenly appeared on Yelp, with comments such as,

    I you like your pizza with a side of bigoted hatred and ignorance this is the spot for you.  If you’re not a piece of trash I would stay away.

    This is an excellent place to bring back that old time, nostalgia feeling.  For those who want to experience what life was like under Jim Crow, this is the place for you!

    Terrible place, owners chose to be heterosexual.  The biggest bigots are the most closeted.  No gay man or woman is going to order pizza for a wedding.  These people should be put out of business.  O yeah, I’m going to kill your Jesus.  Try and stop me.

    and, finally, the apocalyptic,

    DO NOT EAT HERE – The owners are hateful bigots who twist the meaning of Christianity to satisfy their own insecurities by indoctrinating their children with hate, further poisoning our world and future generations.

    …and no doubt our “precious bodily fluids” as well.  These were topped off by death threats and calls for arson attacks, such as this tweet by high school coach Jess Dooley:

    Who’s going to Walkerton, IN t0 burn down #memoriespizza w me?

    Of course, all this was treated as a mere bagatelle by the mainstream media.  After all, the owners were nothing but a couple of hinds in flyover country, and Christians to boot.  If victims can’t be portrayed as leftist martyrs, what’s the point of protecting them?  Regardless of which “side” you choose, the story certainly demonstrates an important truth, and for the umpteenth time:  God or no God, morality isn’t going anywhere.

    Whether you agree with the gay activists or not, it is abundantly clear that their responses are instances of moral behavior.  Furthermore, they demonstrate the dual nature of human morality, characterized by radically different types of moral responses to others depending on whether they are perceived to belong to one’s ingroup or outgroup.  They also clearly demonstrate the human tendency to interpret moral emotions as representations of objective things, commonly referred to as Good and Evil, which are imagined to exist independently of the subjective minds that give rise to them.  In the minds of the gays, the attitude of the Memories Pizza folks towards gay marriage isn’t just an expression of one of many coequal cultural alternatives.  It can’t be dismissed as a mere difference of opinion.  It doesn’t reflect the interpretation of one of many possible moralities, all equally valid relative to each other.  No, clearly, in the minds of the gays, the owners have violated THE moral law.  Otherwise their response, as reflected in tweets, e-mails and threats, would be inexplicable.

    What rational basis is there for this furious reaction?  As far as I can tell, none.  Certainly, the gays cannot rely on holy scripture to legitimize their outrage.  In spite of whimsical attempts at Biblical exegesis by the gay community, both the Bible and the Quran are quite explicit and blunt in their condemnations of gay behavior.  The compassionate and merciful God of the Quran even threatens those who ignore the prohibition with quintillions of years in hell experiencing what ISIS recently inflicted on a Jordanian pilot for a few seconds, and that just for starters.  I find no other sanction, whether in religion or philosophy, for the conclusion that opposition to gay marriage is not only wrong, but is actually absolutely evil.  In other words, the behavior of the gay activists is completely irrational.  It is also completely normal.

    The evolved behavioral traits that are the “root cause” of moral behavior exist because they happened to increase the odds that those who were “wired” for such traits would be more likely to survive and reproduce.  Mother Nature saw to it that moral emotions would be powerful, experienced as reflections of absolutes, and perceived as the independently existing “things,” Good and Evil.  She didn’t bother with anything other than the big picture, the gross effect.  As a result she treated such ostensibly comical manifestations of morality as the raining down of pious anathemas on devout Christians, who tend to be relatively successful at reproduction, by gays, who normally don’t reproduce at all, with a grain of salt, confident (and rightly so) that the vast majority of humans would be too stupid to perceive their own absurdity.

    In a word, fears that the demise of religion implies the demise of morality are overblown.  It will continue to exist in its manifold “different but similar” manifestations, regardless of whether it enjoys the sanction of religious scripture or the scribbling of philosophers.   Morality is hardly infinitely malleable, but it can be shaped to some extent.  It would probably behoove us to do so, making it quite clear in the process to what sorts of behavior it does and does not apply.  The list should be kept as short and simple as possible, consonant with keeping the interactions of individuals as harmonious and productive as possible.

    Back in the day, the religious types whose tastes ran to foisting Prohibition on an unwilling nation used to promote the idea of “one morality.”  It probably wasn’t such a bad idea in itself, although I personally would likely have taken exception to the particular flavor they had in mind.  I would favor a “one morality” that was free of religious influence, and that would apply in situations that the long experience of our species has taught us will arouse moral emotions in any case.   Beyond that, it would apply to as limited an additional subset of behaviors as possible.  Finally, this “one morality” would make it crystal clear that subjecting any other forms of behavior to moral judgment is itself immoral.

    There could be no ultimate sanction or source of legitimacy for such a “one morality” than there could be for any other kind, by virtue of the very nature of morality itself.  However, if it were properly formulated, it would be experienced as an absolute, just like all the rest, regardless of all the fashionable blather about moral relativism.  There would, of course, always be those who question why they “ought” to do one thing, and “ought not” to do another.  As a society, we would do well to see to it that the answer is just what Mother Nature “intended”:  You “ought” to do what is “right,” because you will find the consequences of doing what is “right” a great deal more agreeable than doing what is “wrong.”

  • On the Malleability and Plasticity of the History of the Blank Slate

    Posted on March 22nd, 2015 Helian 10 comments

    Let me put my own cards on the table.  I consider the Blank Slate affair the greatest debacle in the history of science.  Perhaps you haven’t heard of it.  I wouldn’t be surprised.  Those who are the most capable of writing its history are often also those who are most motivated to sweep the whole thing under the rug.  In any case, in the context of this post the Blank Slate refers to a dogma that prevailed in the behavioral sciences for much of the 20th century according to which there is, for all practical purposes, no such thing as human nature.  I consider it the greatest scientific debacle of all time because, for more than half a century, it blocked the path of our species to self-knowledge.  As we gradually approach the technological ability to commit collective suicide, self-knowledge may well be critical to our survival.

    Such histories of the affair as do exist are often carefully and minutely researched by historians familiar with the scientific issues involved.  In general, they’ve personally lived through at least some phase of it, and they’ve often been personally acquainted with some of the most important players.  In spite of that, their accounts have a disconcerting tendency to wildly contradict each other.  Occasionally one finds different versions of the facts themselves, but more often its a question of the careful winnowing of the facts to select and record only those that support a preferred narrative.

    Obviously, I can’t cover all the relevant literature in a single blog post.  Instead, to illustrate my point, I will focus on a single work whose author, Hamilton Cravens, devotes most of his attention to events in the first half of the 20th century, describing the sea change in the behavioral sciences that signaled the onset of the Blank Slate.  As it happens, that’s not quite what he intended.  What we see today as the darkness descending was for him the light of science bursting forth.  Indeed, his book is entitled, somewhat optimistically in retrospect, The Triumph of Evolution:  The Heredity-Environment Controversy, 1900-1941.  It first appeared in 1978, more or less still in the heyday of the Blank Slate, although murmurings against it could already be detected among academic and professional experts in the behavioral sciences after the appearance of a series of devastating critiques in the popular literature in the 60’s by Robert Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz, and others, topped off by E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975.

    Ostensibly, the “triumph” Cravens’ title refers to is the demise of what he calls the “extreme hereditarian” interpretations of human behavior that prevailed in the late 19th and early 20th century in favor of a more “balanced” approach that recognized the importance of culture, as revealed by a systematic application of the scientific method.  One certainly can’t fault him for being superficial.  He introduces us to most of the key movers and shakers in the behavioral sciences in the period in question.  There are minutiae about the contents of papers in old scientific journals, comments gleaned from personal correspondence, who said what at long forgotten scientific conferences, which colleges and universities had strong programs in psychology, sociology and anthropology more than 100 years ago, and who supported them, etc., etc.  He guides us into his narrative so gently that we hardly realize we’re being led by the nose.  Gradually, however, the picture comes into focus.

    It goes something like this.  In bygone days before the “triumph of evolution,” the existence of human “instincts” was taken for granted.  Their importance seemed even more obvious in light of the rediscovery of Mendel’s work.  As Cravens put it,

    While it would be inaccurate to say that most American experimentalists concluded as  the result of the general acceptance of Mendelism by 1910 or so that heredity was all powerful and environment of no consequence, it was nevertheless true that heredity occupied a much more prominent place than environment in their writings.

    This sort of “subtlety” is characteristic of Cravens’ writing.  Here, he doesn’t accuse the scientists he’s referring to of being outright genetic determinists.  They just have an “undue” tendency to overemphasize heredity.  It is only gradually, and by dint of occasional reading between the lines that we learn the “true” nature of these believers in human “instinct.”  Without ever seeing anything as blatant as a mention of Marxism, we learn that their “science” was really just a reflection of their “class.”  For example,

    But there were other reasons why so many American psychologists emphasized heredity over environment.  They shared the same general ethnocultural and class background as did the biologists.  Like the biologists, they grew up in middle class, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant homes, in a subculture where the individual was the focal point of social explanation and comment.

    As we read on, we find Cravens is obsessed with white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, or WASPs, noting that the “wrong” kind of scientists belong to that “class” scores of times.  Among other things, they dominate the eugenics movement, and are innocently referred to as Social Darwinists, as if these terms had never been used in a pejorative sense.  In general they are supposed to oppose immigration from other than “Nordic” countries, and tend to support “neo-Lamarckian” doctrines, and believe blindly that intelligence test results are independent of “social circumstances and milieu.”  As we read further into Section I of the book, we are introduced to a whole swarm of these instinct-believing WASPs.

    In Section II, however, we begin to see the first glimmerings of a new, critical and truly scientific approach to the question of human instincts.  Men like Franz Boas, Robert Lowie, and Alfred Kroeber, began to insist on the importance of culture.  Furthermore, they believed that their “culture idea” could be studied in isolation in such disciplines as sociology and anthropology, insisting on sharp, “territorial” boundaries that would protect their favored disciplines from the defiling influence of instincts.  As one might expect,

    The Boasians were separated from WASP culture; several were immigrants, of Jewish background, or both.

    A bit later they were joined by joined by John Watson and his behaviorists who, after performing some experiments on animals and human infants, apparently experienced an epiphany.  As Cravens puts it,

    To his amazement, Watson concluded that the James-McDougall human instinct theory had no demonstrable experimental basis.  He found the instinct theorists had greatly overestimated the number of original emotional reactions in infants.  For all practical purposes, he realized that there were no human instincts determining the behavior of adults or even of children.

    Perhaps more amazing is the fact that Cravens suspected not a hint of a tendency to replace science with dogma in all this.  As Leibniz might have put it, everything was for the best, in this, the best of all possible worlds.  Everything pointed to the “triumph of evolution.”  According to Cravens, the “triumph” came with astonishing speed:

    By the early 1920s the controversy was over.  Subsequently, psychologists and sociologists joined hands to work out a new interdisciplinary model of the sources of human conduct and emotion stressing the interaction of heredity and environment, of innate and acquired characters – in short, the balance of man’s nature and his culture.

    Alas, my dear Cravens, the controversy was just beginning.  In what follows, he allows us a glimpse at just what kind of “balance” he’s referring to.  As we read on into Section 3 of the book, he finally gets around to setting the hook:

    Within two years of the Nazi collapse in Europe Science published an article symptomatic of a profound theoretical reorientation in the American natural and social sciences.  In that article Theodosius Dobzhansky, a geneticist, and M. F. Ashley-Montagu, an anthropologist, summarized and synthesized what the last quarter century’s work in their respective fields implied for extreme hereditarian explanations of human nature and conduct.  Their overarching thesis was that man was the product of biological and social evolution.  Even though man in his biological aspects was as subject to natural processes as any other species, in certain critical respects he was unique in nature, for the specific system of genes that created an identifiably human mentality also permitted man to experience cultural evolution… Dobzhansky and Ashley-Montagu continued, “Instead of having his responses genetically fixed as in other animal species, man is a species that invents its own responses, and it is out of this unique ability to invent…  his responses that his cultures are born.”

    and, finally, in the conclusions, after assuring us that,

    By the early 1940s the nature-nurture controversy had run its course.

    Cravens leaves us with some closing sentences that epitomize his “triumph of evolution:”

    The long-range, historical function of the new evolutionary science was to resolve the basic questions about human nature in a secular and scientific way, and thus provide the possibilities for social order and control in an entirely new kind of society.  Apparently this was a most successful and enduring campaign in American culture.

    At this point, one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  Apparently Cravens, who has just supplied us with arcane details about who said what at obscure scientific conferences half a century and more before he published his book was completely unawares of exactly what Ashley Montagu, his herald of the new world order, meant when he referred to “extreme hereditarian explanations,” in spite of the fact that he spelled it out ten years earlier in an invaluable little pocket guide for the followers of the “new science” entitled Man and Aggression.  There Montagu describes the sort of “balance of man’s nature and his culture” he intended as follows:

    Man is man because he has no instincts, because everything he is and has become he has learned, acquired, from his culture, from the man-made part of the environment, from other human beings.


    There is, in fact, not the slightest evidence or ground for assuming that the alleged “phylogenetically adapted instinctive” behavior of other animals is in any way relevant to the discussion of the motive-forces of human behavior.  The fact is, that with the exception of the instinctoid reactions in infants to sudden withdrawals of support and to sudden loud noises, the human being is entirely instinctless.

    So much for Cravens’ “balance.”  He spills a great deal of ink in his book assuring us that the Blank Slate orthodoxy he defends was the product of “science,” little influenced by any political or ideological bias.  Apparently he also didn’t notice that, not only in Man and Aggression, but ubiquitously in the Blank Slate literature, the “new science” is defended over and over and over again with the “argument” that anyone who opposes it is a racist and a fascist, not to mention far right wing.

    As it turns out, Cravens didn’t completely lapse into a coma following the publication of Ashley Montagu’s 1947 pronunciamiento in Science.  In his “Conclusion” we discover that, after all, he had a vague presentiment of the avalanche that would soon make a shambles of his “new evolutionary science.”  In his words,

    Of course in recent years something approximating at least a minor revival of the old nature-nurture controversy seems to have arisen in American science and politics.  It is certainly quite possible that this will lead to a full scale nature-nurture controversy in time, not simply because of the potential for a new model of nature that would permit a new debate, but also, as one historian has pointed out, because our own time, like the 1920s, has been a period of racial and ethnic polarization.  Obviously any further comment would be premature.

    Obviously, my dear Cravens.  What’s the moral of the story, dear reader?   Well, among other things, that if you really want to learn something about the Blank Slate, you’d better not be shy of wading through the source literature yourself.  It’s still out there, waiting to be discovered.  One particularly rich source of historical nuggets is H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury, which Ron Unz has been so kind as to post online.  Mencken took a personal interest in the “nature vs. nurture” controversy, and took care to publish articles by heavy hitters on both sides.  For a rather different take than Cravens on the motivations of the early Blank Slaters, see for example, Heredity and the Uplift, by H. M. Parshley.  Parshley was an interesting character who took on no less an opponent than Clarence Darrow in a debate over eugenics, and later translated Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist manifesto The Second Sex into English.


  • No Ignition at the National Ignition Facility: A Post Mortem

    Posted on March 21st, 2015 Helian No comments

    The National Ignition Facility, or NIF, at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California was designed and built, as its name implies, to achieve fusion ignition.  The first experimental campaign intended to achieve that goal, the National Ignition Campaign, or NIC, ended in failure.  Scientists at LLNL recently published a paper in the journal Physics of Plasmas outlining, to the best of their knowledge to date, why the experiments failed.  Entitled “Radiation hydrodynamics modeling of the highest compression inertial confinement fusion ignition experiment from the National Ignition Campaign,” the paper concedes that,

    The recently completed National Ignition Campaign (NIC) on the National Ignition Facility (NIF) showed significant discrepancies between post-shot simulations of implosion performance and experimentally measured performance, particularly in thermonuclear yield.

    To understand what went wrong, it’s necessary to know some facts about the fusion process and the nature of scientific attempts to achieve fusion in the laboratory.  Here’s the short version:  The neutrons and protons in an atomic nucleus are held together by the strong force, which is about 100 times stronger than the electromagnetic force, and operates only over tiny distances measured in femtometers.  The average binding energy per nucleon (proton or neutron) due to the strong force is greatest for the elements in the middle of the periodic table, and gradually decreases in the directions of both the lighter and heavier elements.  That’s why energy is released by fissioning heavy atoms like uranium into lighter atoms, or fusing light atoms like hydrogen into heavier atoms.  Fusion of light elements isn’t easy.  Before the strong force that holds atomic nuclei together can take effect, two light nuclei must be brought very close to each other.  However, atomic nuclei are all positively charged, and like charges repel.  The closer they get, the stronger the repulsion becomes.  The sun solves the problem with its crushing gravitational force.  On earth, the energy of fission can also provide the necessary force in nuclear weapons.  However, concentrating enough energy to accomplish the same thing in the laboratory has proved a great deal more difficult.

    The problem is to confine incredibly hot material at sufficiently high densities for a long enough time for significant fusion to take place.  At the moment there are two mainstream approaches to solving it:  magnetic fusion and inertial confinement fusion, or ICF.  In the former, confinement is achieved with powerful magnetic lines of force.  That’s the approach at the international ITER fusion reactor project currently under construction in France.  In ICF, the idea is to first implode a small target of fuel material to extremely high density, and then heat it to the necessary high temperature so quickly that its own inertia holds it in place long enough for fusion to happen.  That’s the approach being pursued at the NIF.

    The NIF consists of 192 powerful laser beams, which can concentrate about 1.8 megajoules of light on a tiny spot, delivering all that energy in a time of only a few nanoseconds.  It is much larger than the next biggest similar facility, the OMEGA laser system at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics in Rochester, NY, which maxes out at about 40 kilojoules.  The NIC experiments were indirect drive experiments, meaning that the lasers weren’t aimed directly at the BB-sized, spherical target, or “capsule,” containing the fuel material (a mixture of deuterium and tritium, two heavy isotopes of hydrogen).  Instead, the target was mounted inside of a tiny, cylindrical enclosure known as a hohlraum with the aid of a thin, plastic “tent.”  The lasers were fired through holes on each end of the hohlraum, striking the walls of the cylinder, generating a pulse of x-rays.  These x-rays then struck the target, ablating material from its surface at high speed.  In a manner similar to a rocket exhaust, this drove the remaining target material inward, causing it to implode to extremely high densities, about 40 times heavier than the heaviest naturally occurring elements.  As it implodes, the material must be kept as “cold” as possible, because it’s easier to squeeze and compress things that are cold than those that are hot.  However, when it reaches maximum density, a way must be found to heat a small fraction of this “cold” material to the very high temperatures needed for significant fusion to occur.  This is accomplished by setting off a series of shocks during the implosion process that converge at the center of the target at just the right time, generating the necessary “hot spot.”  The resulting fusion reactions release highly energetic alpha particles, which spread out into the surrounding “cold” material, heating it and causing it to fuse as well, in a “burn wave” that propagates outward.  “Ignition” occurs when the amount of fusion energy released in this way is equal to the energy in the laser beams that drove the target.

    As noted above, things didn’t go as planned.  The actual fusion yield achieved in the best experiment was less than that predicted by the best radiation hydrodynamics computer codes available at the time by a factor of about 50, give or take.  The LLNL paper in Physics of Plasmas discusses some of the reasons for this, and describes subsequent improvements to the codes that account for some, but not all, of the experimental discrepancies.  According to the paper,

    Since these simulation studies were completed, experiments have continued on NIF and have identified several important effects – absent in the previous simulations – that have the potential to resolve at least some of the large discrepancies between simulated and experimental yields.  Briefly, these effects include larger than anticipated low-mode distortions of the imploded core – due primarily to asymmetries in the x-ray flux incident on the capsule, – a larger than anticipated perturbation to the implosion caused by the thin plastic membrane or “tent” used to support the capsule in the hohlraum prior to the shot, and the presence, in some cases, of larger than expected amounts of ablator material mixed into the hot spot.

    In a later section, the LLNL scientists also note,

    Since this study was undertaken, some evidence has also arisen suggesting an additional perturbation source other than the three specifically considered here.  That is, larger than anticipated fuel pre-heat due to energetic electrons produced from laser-plasma interactions in the hohlraum.

    In simple terms, the first of these passages means that the implosions weren’t symmetric enough, and the second means that the fuel may not have been “cold” enough during the implosion process.  Any variation from perfectly spherical symmetry during the implosion can rob energy from the central hot spot, allow material to escape before fusion can occur, mix cold fuel material into the hot spot, quenching it, etc., potentially causing the experiment to fail.  The asymmetries in the x-ray flux mentioned in the paper mean that the target surface would have been pushed harder in some places than in others, resulting in asymmetries to the implosion itself.  A larger than anticipated perturbation due to the “tent” would have seeded instabilities, such as the Rayleigh-Taylor instability.  Imagine holding a straw filled with water upside down.  Atmospheric pressure will prevent the water from running out.  Now imagine filling a perfectly cylindrical bucket with water to the same depth.  If you hold it upside down, the atmospheric pressure over the surface of the water is the same.  Based on the straw experiment, the water should stay in the bucket, just as it did in the straw.  Nevertheless, the water comes pouring out.  As they say in the physics business, the straw experiment doesn’t “scale.”  The reason for this anomaly is the Rayleigh-Taylor instability.  Over such a large surface, small variations from perfect smoothness are gradually amplified, growing to the point that the surface becomes “unstable,” and the water comes splashing out.  Another, related instability, the Richtmeyer-Meshkov instability, leads to similar results in material where shocks are present, as in the NIF experiments.

    Now, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s interesting to look back at some of the events leading up to the decision to build the NIF.  At the time, government used a “key decision” process to approve major proposed projects.  The first key decision, known as Key Decision 0, or KD0, was approval to go forward with conceptual design.  The second was KD1, approval of engineering design and acquisition.  There were more “key decisions” in the process, but after passing KD1, it could safely be assumed that most projects were “in the bag.”  In the early 90’s, a federal advisory committee, known as the Inertial Confinement Fusion Advisory Committee, or ICFAC, had been formed to advise the responsible agency, the Department of Energy (DOE), on matters relating to the national ICF program.  Among other things, its mandate including advising the government on whether it should proceed with key decisions on the NIF project.  The Committee’s advice was normally followed by DOE.

    At the time, there were six major “program elements” in the national ICF program.  These included the three weapons laboratories, LLNL, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), and Sandia National Laboratories (SNL).  The remaining three included the Laboratory for Laser Energetics at the University of Rochester (UR/LLE), the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), and General Atomics (GA).  Spokespersons from all these “program elements” appeared before the ICFAC at a series of meetings in the early 90’s.  The critical meeting as far as approval of the decision to pass through KD1 is concerned took place in May 1994.  Prior to that time, extensive experimental programs at LLNL’s Nova laser, UR/LLE’s OMEGA, and a host of other facilities had been conducted to address potential uncertainties concerning whether the NIF could achieve ignition.  The best computer codes available at the time had modeled proposed ignition targets, and predicted that several different designs would ignite, typically producing “gains,” the ratio of the fusion energy out to the laser energy in, of from 1 to 10.  There was just one major fly in the ointment – a brilliant physicist named Steve Bodner, who directed the ICF program at NRL at the time.

    Bodner told the ICFAC that the chances of achieving ignition on the NIF were minimal, providing his reasons in the form of a detailed physics analysis.  Among other things, he noted that there was no way of controlling the symmetry because of blow-off of material from the hohlraum wall, which could absorb both laser light and x-rays.  Ablated material from the capsule itself could also absorb laser and x-ray radiation, again destroying symmetry.  He pointed out that codes had raised the possibility of pressure perturbations on the capsule surface due to stagnation of the blow-off material on the hohlraum axis.  LLNL’s response was that these problems could be successfully addressed by filling the hohlraum with a gas such as helium, which would hold back the blow-off from the walls and target.  Bodner replied that such “solutions” had never really been tested because of the inability to do experiments on Nova with sufficient pulse length.  In other words, it was impossible to conduct experiments that would “scale” to the NIF on existing facilities.  In building the NIF, we might be passing from the “straw” to the “bucket.”  He noted several other areas of major uncertainty with NIF-scale targets, such as the possibility of unaccounted for reflection of the laser light, and the possibility of major perturbations due to so-called laser-plasma instabilities.

    In light of these uncertainties, Bodner suggested delaying approval of KD1 for a year or two until these issues could be more carefully studied.  At that point, we may have gained the technological confidence to proceed.  However, I suspect he knew that two years would never be enough to resolve the issues he had raised.  What Bodner really wanted to do was build a much larger facility, known as the Laboratory Microfusion Facility, or LMF.  The LMF would have a driver energy of from 5 to 10 megajoules compared to the NIF’s 1.8.  It had been seriously discussed in the late 80’s and early 90’s.  Potentially, such a facility could be built with Bodner’s favored KrF laser drivers, the kind used on the Nike laser system at NRL, instead of the glass lasers that had been chosen for NIF.  It would be powerful enough to erase the physics uncertainties he had raised by “brute force.”  Bodner’s proposed approach was plausible and reasonable.  It was also a forlorn hope.

    Funding for the ICF program had been cut in the early 90’s.  Chances of gaining approval for a beast as expensive as LMF were minimal.  As a result, it was now officially considered a “follow-on” facility to the NIF.  No one took this seriously at the time.  Everyone knew that, if NIF failed, there would be no “follow-on.”  Bodner knew this, the scientists at the other program elements knew it, and so did the members of the ICFAC.  The ICFAC was composed of brilliant scientists.  However, none of them had any real insight into the guts of the computer codes that were predicting ignition on the NIF.  Still, they had to choose between the results of the big codes, and Bodner’s physical insight bolstered by what were, in comparison, “back of the envelope” calculations.  They chose the big codes.  With the exception of Tim Coffey, then Director of NRL, they voted to approve passing through KD1 at the May meeting.

    In retrospect, Bodner’s objections seem prophetic.  The NIC has failed, and he was not far off the mark concerning the reasons for the failure.  It’s easy to construe the whole affair as a morality tale, with Bodner playing the role of neglected Cassandra, and the LLNL scientists villains whose overweening technological hubris finally collided with the grim realities of physics.  Things aren’t that simple.  The LLNL people, not to mention the supporters of NIF from the other program elements, included many responsible and brilliant scientists.  They were not as pessimistic as Bodner, but none of them was 100% positive that the NIF would succeed.  They decided the risk was warranted, and they may well yet prove to be right.

    In the first place, as noted above, chances that an LMF might be substituted for the NIF after another year or two of study were very slim.  The funding just wasn’t there.  Indeed, the number of laser beams on the NIF itself had been reduced from the originally proposed 240 to 192, at least in part, for that very reason.  It was basically a question of the NIF or nothing.  Studying the problem to death, now such a typical feature of the culture at our national research laboratories, would have led nowhere.  The NIF was never conceived as an energy project, although many scientists preferred to see it in that light.  Rather, it was built to serve the national nuclear weapons program.  It’s supporters were aware that it would be of great value to that program even if it didn’t achieve ignition.  In fact, it is, and is now providing us with a technological advantage that rival nuclear powers can’t match in this post-testing era.  Furthermore, LLNL and the other weapons laboratories were up against another problem – what you might call a demographic cliff.  The old, testing-era weapons designers were getting decidedly long in the tooth, and it was necessary to find some way to attract new talent.  A facility like the NIF, capable of exploring issues in inertial fusion energy, astrophysics, and other non-weapons-related areas of high energy density physics, would certainly help address that problem as well.

    Finally, the results of the NIC in no way “proved” that ignition on the NIF is impossible.  There are alternatives to the current indirect drive approach with frequency-tripled “blue” laser beams.  Much more energy, up to around 4 megajoules, might be available if the known problems of using longer wavelength “green” light can be solved.  Thanks to theoretical and experimental work done by the ICF team at UR/LLE under the leadership of Dr. Robert McCrory, the possibility of direct drive experiments on the NIF, hitting the target directly instead of shooting the laser beams into a “hohlraum” can, was also left open, using a so-called “polar” illumination approach.  Another possibility is the “fast ignitor” approach to ICF, which would dispense with the need for complicated converging shocks to produce a central “hot spot.”  Instead, once the target had achieved maximum density, the hot spot would be created on the outer surface using a separate driver beam.

    In other words, while the results of the NIC are disappointing, stay tuned.  Pace Dr. Bodner, the scientists at LLNL may yet pull a rabbit out of their hats.


  • The Objective Morality Delusion

    Posted on March 15th, 2015 Helian No comments

    Human morality is the manifestation of innate behavioral traits in animals with brains large enough to reason about their own emotional reactions.  It exists because those traits evolved.  They did not evolve to serve any purpose, but purely because they happened to enhance the probability that individuals carrying them would survive and reproduce.  In the absence of those traits morality as we know it would not exist.  Darwin certainly suspected as much.  Now, more than a century and a half after the publication of On the Origin of Species, so much is really obvious.

    Scores of books have been published recently on the innate emotional wellsprings of morality.  Its analogs have been clearly identified in other animals.  Its expression has been demonstrated in infants, long before the they could have learned the responses in question via cultural transmission.  Unless all these books are pure gibberish, and all these observations are delusions, morality is ultimately the expression of physical phenomena happening in the brains of individuals.  In other words, it is subjective.  It does not have an independent existence as a thing-in-itself, outside of the minds of individuals.  It follows that it cannot somehow jump out of the skulls of those individuals and gain some kind of an independent, legitimate power to prescribe to other individuals what they should or should not do.

    In spite of all that, the faith in objective morality persists, in defiance of the obvious.  The truth is too jarring, too uncomfortable, too irreconcilable with what we “feel,” and so we have turned away from it.  As the brilliant Edvard Westermarck put it in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas,

    As clearness and distinctness of the conception of an object easily produces the belief in its truth, so the intensity of a moral emotion makes him who feels it disposed to objectivise the moral estimate to which it gives rise, in other words, to assign to it universal validity.  The enthusiast is more likely than anybody else to regard his judgments as true, and so is the moral enthusiast with reference to his moral judgments.  The intensity of his emotions makes him the victim of an illusion.

    It follows that, as Westermarck puts it,

    The presumed objectivity of moral judgments thus being a chimera, there can be no moral truth in the sense in which this term is generally understood.  The ultimate reason for this is, that the moral concepts are based upon emotions, and that the contents of an emotion fall entirely outside the category of truth.

    and therefore,

    If there are no general moral truths, the object of scientific ethics cannot be to fix rules for human conduct, the aim of all science being the discovery of some truth.

    Westermarck wrote those words in 1906.  More than a century later, we are still whistling past the graveyard of objective morality.  Interested readers can confirm this by a quick trip to their local university library.  Browsing through the pages of Ethics, one of the premier journals devoted to the subject, they will find articles on deontological, consequentialist, and several other abstruse flavors of morality.  They will find a host of helpful recipes for what should or should not be done in a given situation.  They will discover that it is their “duty” to do this, that, or the other thing.  Finally, they will find all of the above ensconced in an almost impenetrable smokescreen of academic jargon.  In a word, most of the learned contributors to Ethics have ignored Westermarck, and are still chasing their tails, doggedly pursuing a “scientific ethics” that will “fix rules for human conduct” once and for all.

    Challenge one of these learned philosophers, and their response is typically threadbare enough.  A common gambit is no more complex than the claim that objective morality must exist, because if it didn’t then the things we all know are bad wouldn’t be bad anymore.  An example of the genre recently turned up on the opinion pages of The New York Times, entitled, Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts.  Its author, Justin McBrayer, an associate professor of philosophy at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, opens with the line,

    What would you say if you found out that our public schools were teaching children that it is not true that it’s wrong to kill people for fun or cheat on tests? Would you be surprised?

    Now, as Westermarck pointed out, it is impossible for things to be “true” if they have no objective existence.  Read the article carefully, and you’ll see that McBrayer doesn’t even attempt to dispute the logic behind Westermarck’s observation.  Rather, he tells him the same thing Socrates’ judges told him as they handed him the hemlock:  “I’m right and you’re wrong because what you claim is true is bad for the children.”  In other words, there must be an objective bad because otherwise it would be bad.   Other than that, the only attempt at an argument in the whole article is the following ad hominem remark about any philosopher who denies the existence of objective morality:

    There are historical examples of philosophers who endorse a kind of moral relativism, dating back at least to Protagoras who declared that “man is the measure of all things,” and several who deny that there are any moral facts whatsoever. But such creatures are rare.

    In other words, objective morality must be true, because those who deny it are “creatures.”  No doubt, such “defenses” of objective morality have been around since time immemorial.  They certainly were in Westermarck’s day.  His response was as valid then as it is now:

    Ethical subjectivism is commonly held to be a dangerous doctrine, destructive to morality, opening the door to all sorts of libertinism.  If that which appears to each man as right or good, stands for that which is right or good; if he is allowed to make his own law, or to make no law at all; then, it is said, everybody has the natural right to follow his caprice and inclinations, and to hinder him from doing so is an infringement on his rights, a constraint with which no one is bound to comply provided that he has the power to evade it.  This inference was long ago drawn from the teaching of the Sophists, and it will no doubt be still repeated as an argument against any theorist who dares to assert that nothing can be said to be truly right or wrong.  To this argument may, first, be objected that a scientific theory is not invalidated by the mere fact that it is likely to cause mischief.

    Obviously, as Westermarck foresaw, the argument is “still repeated” more than a century later.  In McBrayer’s case, it goes like this:

    Indeed, in the world beyond grade school, where adults must exercise their moral knowledge and reasoning to conduct themselves in the society, the stakes are greater. There, consistency demands that we acknowledge the existence of moral facts. If it’s not true that it’s wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees, then how can we be outraged? If there are no truths about what is good or valuable or right, how can we prosecute people for crimes against humanity? If it’s not true that all humans are created equal, then why vote for any political system that doesn’t benefit you over others?

    He adds,

    As a philosopher, I already knew that many college-aged students don’t believe in moral facts. While there are no national surveys quantifying this phenomenon, philosophy professors with whom I have spoken suggest that the overwhelming majority of college freshmen in their classrooms view moral claims as mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture.

    One often hears such remarks about the supposed pervasiveness of moral relativism.  They are commonly based on the fallacy that human morality is the product of human reason rather than human emotion.  The reality is that Mother Nature has been blithely indifferent to the repeated assertions of philosophers that, unless we listen to them, morality will disappear.  She designed morality to work, for better or worse, whether we take the trouble to reason about it or not.  All these fears of moral relativism can’t even pass the “ho ho” test.  They fly in the face of all the observable facts about moral behavior in the real world.  Moral relativism on campus, you say?  Please!  There has never been such a hotbed of extreme, moralistic piety as exists today in academia since the heyday of the Puritans.  No less a comedian than Chris Rock won’t even perform on college campuses anymore because of repeated encounters with the extreme manifestations of priggishness one finds there.  One can’t tell a joke without “offending” someone.

    Morality isn’t going anywhere.  It will continue to function just as it always has, oblivious to whether it has the permission of philosophers or not.  As can be seen by the cultural differences in the way that moral emotions are “acted out,” within certain limits morality is malleable.  We have some control over whether it is “acted out” by the immolation of enemy pilots and the beheading and crucifixion of “infidels,” or in forms that promote what Sam Harris might call “human flourishing.”  Regardless of our choice, I suspect that our chances of successfully shaping a morality that most of us would find agreeable will be enhanced if we base our actions on what morality actually is rather than on what we want it to be.

  • Stephen Hawking Chimes in “On Aggression”

    Posted on March 2nd, 2015 Helian No comments

    Tell me, dear reader, have you ever heard the term, “On Aggression” before?  As it happens, that was actually the title of a book by Konrad Lorenz published in 1966, at the height of the Blank Slate debacle.  In it Lorenz suggested that the origins of both animal and human aggression could be traced to evolved behavioral predispositions, or, in the vernacular, human nature.  He was duly denounced at the time by the Blank Slate priesthood as a fascist and a racist, with dark allusions to possible connections to the John Birch Society itself!  See, for example, “Man and Aggression,” edited by Ashley Montagu, or “Not in Our Genes,” by Richard Lewontin.  In those days the Blank Slaters had the popular media in their hip pocket.  In fact, they continued to have it in their hip pocket pretty much until the end of the 20th century.  For example, no less a celebrity than Jane Goodall was furiously vilified, in the Sunday Times, no less, for daring to suggest that chimpanzees could occasionally be aggressive.

    Times have changed!  Fast forward to 2015.  Adaeze Uyanwah, a 24-year-old from California, just won the “Guest of Honor” contest from VisitLondon.com. The prize package included a tour of London’s Science Museum with celebrity physicist Stephen Hawking.  During the tour, Uyanwah asked Hawking which human shortcoming he would most like to change.  He replied as follows:

    The human failing I would most like to correct is aggression.  It may have had survival advantage in caveman days, to get more food, territory or a partner with whom to reproduce, but now it threatens to destroy us all.

    Hello!!  Hawking just matter-of-factly referred to aggression as an innate human trait!  Were there shrieks of rage from the august practitioners of the behavioral sciences?  No.  Did it occur to anyone to denounce Hawking as a fascist?  No.  Did so much as a single journalistic crusader for social justice swallow his gum?  No!  See for yourself!  You can check the response in the reliably liberal Huffington Post, Washington Post, or even the British Independent, and you won’t find so much as a mildly raised eyebrow.  By all means, read on and check the comments!  No one noticed a thing!  If you’re still not sufficiently stunned, check out this interview of famous physicist Mishio Kaku apropos Hawking’s comment on MSNBC’s Ed Show.  As anyone who hasn’t been asleep for the last 20 years is aware, MSNBC’s political line is rather to the left of Foxnews.  Nothing that either (Ed) Schultz nor Kaku says suggest that they find anything the least bit controversial about Hawking’s statement.  Indeed, they accept it as obvious, and continue with a discussion of whether it would behoove us to protect ourselves from this unfortunate aspect of our “human nature” by escaping to outer space!

    In a word, while the Blank Slate may simmer on in the more obscurantist corners of academia, I think we can safely conclude that it has lost the popular media.  Is hubris in order?  Having watched all the old Christopher Lee movies, I rather doubt it.  Vampires have a way of rising from the grave.

  • On the Resurrection and Transfiguration of the Blank Slate

    Posted on February 28th, 2015 Helian No comments

    All appearances to the contrary in the popular media, the Blank Slate lives on.  Of course, its heyday is long gone, but it slumbers on in the more obscure niches of academia.  One of its more recent manifestations just turned up at Scientia Salon in the form of a paper by one Mark Fedyk, an assistant professor of philosophy at Mount Allison University in Sackville, Canada.  Entitled, “How (not) to Bring Psychology and Biology Together,” it provides the interested reader with a glimpse at several of the more typical features of the genre as it exists today.

    Fedyk doesn’t leave us in doubt about where he’s coming from.  Indeed, he lays his cards on the table in plain sight in the abstract, where he writes that, “psychologists should have a preference for explanations of adaptive behavior in humans that refer to learning and other similarly malleable psychological mechanisms – and not modules or instincts or any other kind of relatively innate and relatively non-malleable psychological mechanisms.”  Reading on into the body of the paper a bit, we quickly find another trademark trait of both the ancient and modern Blank Slaters; their tendency to invent strawman arguments, attribute them to their opponents, and then blithely ignore those opponents when they point out that the strawmen bear no resemblance to anything they actually believe.

    In Fedyk’s case, many of the strawmen are incorporated in his idiosyncratic definition of the term “modules.”  Among other things, these “modules” are “strongly nativist,” they don’t allow for “developmental plasticity,” they imply a strong, either-or version of the ancient nature vs. nurture dichotomy, and they are “relatively innate and relatively non-malleable.”  In Fedyk’s paper, the latter phrase serves the same purpose as the ancient “genetic determinism” strawman did in the heyday of the Blank Slate.  Apparently that’s now become too obvious, and the new jargon is introduced by way of keeping up appearances.  In any case, we gather from the paper that all evolutionary psychologists are supposed to believe in these “modules.”  It matters not a bit to Fedyk that his “modules” have been blown out of the water literally hundreds of times in the EP literature stretching back over a period of two decades and more.  A good example that patiently dissects each of his strawmen one by one is “Modularity in Cognition:  Framing the Debate,” published by Barrett and Kurzban back in 2006.  It’s available free online, and I invite my readers to have a look at it.  It can be Googled up by anyone in a few seconds, but apparently Fedyk has somehow failed to discover it.

    Once he has assured us that all EPers have an unshakable belief in his “modules,” Fedyk proceeds to concoct an amusing fairy tale based on that assumption.  In the process, he presents his brilliant and original theory of “anticipated consilience.”  According to this theory, researchers in new fields, such as EP, should rely on the findings of more mature “auxiliary disciplines,” particularly those which have been “extremely successful” in the past, to inform their own research.  In the case of evolutionary psychology, the “auxiliary discipline” turns out to be evolutionary biology.  As Fedyk puts it,

    One of the more specific ways of doing this is to rely upon what can be called the principle of anticipated consilience, which says that it is rational to have a prima facie preference for those novel theories commended by previous scientific research which are most likely to be subsequently integrated in explanatorily- or inductively-fruitful ways with the relevant discipline as it expands.  The principle will be reliable simply because the novel theories which are most likely to be subsequently integrated into the mature scientific discipline as it expands are just those novel theories which are most likely to be true.

    He then proceeds to incorporate his strawmen into an illustration of how this “anticipated consilience” would work in practice:

    To see how this would work, consider, for example, two fairly general categories of proximate explanations for adaptive behaviors in humans, nativist (i.e., bad, ed.) psychological hypotheses which posit some kind of module (namely the imaginary kind invented by Fedyk, ed.) and non-nativist (i.e., good, ed.) psychological hypotheses, which posit some kind of learning routine (i.e., the Blank Slate, ed.)

    As the tale continues, we learn that,

    …it is plausible that, for approximately the first decade of research in evolutionary psychology following its emergence out of sociobiology in the 1980s, considerations of anticipated consilience would have likely rationalized a preference for proximate explanations which refer to modules and similar types of proximate mechanisms.

    The reason for this given by Fedyk turns out to be the biggest thigh-slapper in this whole, implausible yarn,

    So by the time evolutionary psychology emerged in reaction to human sociobiology in the 1980s, (Konrad) Lorenz’s old hydraulic model of instincts really was the last positive model in biology of the proximate causes of adaptive behavior.

    Whimsical?  Yes, but stunning is probably a better adjective.  If we are to believe Fedyk, we are forced to conclude that he never even heard of the Blank Slate!  After all, some of that orthodoxy’s very arch-priests, such as Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould are/were evolutionary biologists.  They, too, had a “positive model in biology of the proximate causes of adaptive behavior,” in the form of the Blank Slate.  Fedyk is speaking of a time in which the Blank Slate dogmas were virtually unchallenged in the behavioral sciences, and anyone who got out of line was shouted down as a fascist, or worse.  And yet we are supposed to swallow the ludicrous imposture that Lorenz’ hydraulic theory not only overshadowed the Blank Slate dogmas, but was the only game in town!  But let’s not question the plot.  Continuing on with Fedyk’s adjusted version of history, we discover that (voila!) the evolutionary biologists suddenly recovered from their infatuation with hydraulic theory, and got their minds right:

    …what I want to argue is that, in the last decade or so, a new understanding of the biological importance of developmental plasticity has implications for evolutionary psychology. Whereas previously considerations of anticipated consilience with evolutionary biology and cognitive science may have provided support for those proximate hypotheses which posited modules, I argue in this section that these very same considerations now support significantly non-nativist proximate hypotheses. The argument, put simply, is that traits which have high degrees of plasticity will be more evolutionarily robust than highly canalized innately specified non-malleable traits like mental modules. The upshot is that a mind comprised mostly of modules is not plastic in this specific sense, and is therefore ultimately unlikely to be favoured by natural selection. But a mind equipped with powerful, domain general learning routines does have the relevant plasticity.

    I leave it as an exercise for the student to pick out all the innumerable strawmen in this parable of the “great change of heart” in evolutionary biology.  Suffice it to say that, as a result of this new-found “plasticity,” anticipated consilience now requires evolutionary psychologists to reject their silly notions about human nature in favor of a return to the sheltering haven of the Blank Slate.  Fedyk helpfully spells it out for us:

    This means that, given a choice between proximate explanations which reflect a commitment to the massive modularity hypothesis and proximate explanations which, instead, reflect an approach to the mind which privileges learning…, the latter is most plausible in light of evolutionary biology.

    The kicker here is that if anyone even mildly suggests any connection between this latter day manifestation of cultural determinism and the dogmas of the Blank Slate, the Fedyks of the world scream foul.  Apparently we are to believe that the “proximate explanations” of evolutionary psychology aren’t completely excluded as long as one can manage a double back flip over the rather substantial barrier of “anticipated consilience” that blocks the way.  How that might actually turn out to be possible is never explained.  In spite of these scowling denials, I personally will continue to prefer the naïve assumption that, if something walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and flaps its wings like a duck, then it actually is a duck, or Blank Slater, as the case may be.

  • Nuclear Power and the Anti-Science Ideology of the “Progressive” Left

    Posted on February 22nd, 2015 Helian No comments

    The ideological Left is fond of accusing the Right of being “anti-science.”  The evidence often comes in the form of Exhibit A (climate denialism) and Exhibit B (Darwin denialism).  True, these maladies are encountered more frequently on the Right than on the Left.  As it happens, however, there are also scientific allergies on the Left, and there is little question that they have been a great deal more damaging than their conservative analogs.  The best example is probably the Blank Slate debacle.  In order to prop up leftist shibboleths, denial of the very existence of human nature was enforced for more than half a century.  The effect on the behavioral sciences, and with them the self-knowledge critical to our very survival, was devastating.  “Scientific” Marxism-Leninism is another obvious example.  However, when it comes to scientific allergies, the Left’s irrational and often fanatical opposition to nuclear power may turn out to be the most damaging of all.

    Those who seek to alarm us about rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere, and yet reject the most effective technology for bringing them under control, are not serious.  They are mere poseurs.  Thanks to these anti-science attitudes on the Left, dozens of dirty, coal-fired power plants will be built in Germany alone to replace the baseload generating capacity once provided by nuclear reactors.  The situation is no better in the U.S.  Both countries have developed some of the most advanced, not to mention safest, nuclear technologies known to man, and yet both, hamstrung by opposition coming from the Left of the political spectrum, have abdicated the responsibility to apply that knowledge.  Instead, they are exporting it – to China.

    As I write this, we are helping China to build a novel type of reactor that combines molten salt technology developed in the United States with a version of the “pebble” type fuel pioneered by the Germans.  Approved in 2011, the original target completion date of 2015 has now slipped to 2020, but both goals would be out of the question in the byzantine regulatory atmosphere of the 21st century United States.  U.S. knowhow will also be used to build the novel “traveling wave” reactor design favored by Bill Gates – also in China.  The Chinese are also actively pursuing the high temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) technology that was proposed for the ill-fated Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP), further development of which was recently cancelled in the United States.

    I certainly have nothing against China building advanced reactors using technology that was developed elsewhere.  It’s good that the knowledge in question is being applied at least somewhere on the planet.  However, I find it unfortunate that we no longer have the leadership, vision, or political will to do so ourselves.  It was not always so.  The U.S. commissioned the world’s first nuclear powered submarine, the U.S.S. Nautilus, in 1954, little more than a decade after the successful demonstration of the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction at the University of Chicago.  More than 50 experimental nuclear reactors were built at what is now Idaho National Laboratory (INL) in a period of about two decades stretching from the 50’s to the mid-70’s.  None has been built since.  The situation is similar at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), site of the world’s first molten salt reactor.  Instead of working, next generation reactors, INL, ORNL, and the rest of the U.S. national laboratories now turn out only paper studies – gigantic mounds of them – in quantities that would probably stretch to the moon and back by now.  The chances that any of them will ever be usefully applied in this country are slim and none.

    The technologies in question are not mere incremental improvements over the conventional nuclear power plants that now produce almost all the world’s nuclear power.  They have the demonstrated capacity to extract more than an order of magnitude more energy out of a given quantity of mined fuel material than conventional designs.  They can burn the long-lived radioactive actinides and other hazardous isotopes produced in nuclear fission that represent the most dangerous types of radioactive waste, reducing the residual radioactivity from operation of a nuclear plant to a level less than that of the original uranium ore is less than 500 years – a far cry from the millions of years often cited by hysterical anti-nukers.  Under the circumstances, it is worth taking note of where the opposition that stopped the development and application of these technologies in the past, and continues to do so today, is coming from.

    The regulatory nightmare that has brought the continued development of these technologies in the United States to a virtual standstill is primarily the legacy of the “progressive” Left.  The anti-nuclear zealots on that side of the political spectrum cling to bogus linear no-threshold models of radioactive hazard, grotesquely exaggerated horror stories about the supposed impossibility of dealing with nuclear waste, and a stubborn cluelessness about the dangers of the alternative coal and other fossil-fired technologies that their opposition to nuclear will inevitably continue to promote in spite of all their strident denials.  These are facts that it would be well to keep in mind the next time you hear the Left calling the Right “anti-science,” or, for that matter, the next time you hear them pontificating about their deep commitment to the fight against global warming.

  • But What of Shaftesbury?

    Posted on February 8th, 2015 Helian 3 comments

    In this and my previous post, I discuss some British philosophers that even most well-educated laypeople have never heard of.  Why?  Because they shed a great deal of light on the subjects of human nature and morality.  These subjects are critical to our self-understanding, which, in turn, is critical to our survival.  If we had read, understood, and built on what they taught, we might have avoided wandering into many of the blind alleys into which we were led by subsequent generations of the “men of science.”  The most damaging and delusional blind alley of all was the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  Ironically, it was enforced by exploiting the very moral emotions whose existence it denied, setting back the behavioral sciences and moral philosophy by more than a century in the process.  View, if you like, these posts as an attempt to pick up the lost threads.

    In my previous post I highlighted the philosophy of Francis Hutcheson.  I note in passing that he was actually born in Ireland, and studied and received his degree in Scotland.  I did that because Hutcheson was the first, or at least the first I know of, to elaborate a well thought out and coherent theory of the origins of morality in an innate “moral sense,” demonstrating in the process why, absent such a moral sense, moral behavior is not even possible.  In other words, the “root cause” of morality is this moral sense.  Furthermore, Hutcheson explained why, as a consequence, it is impossible to distinguish between good and evil using reason alone.  Two hundred years later the great Finnish moral philosopher Edvard Westermarck, who had read and admired Hutcheson, noted that in the ensuing years, his contention that, “the moral concepts are ultimately based on emotions either of indignation or approval, is a fact which a certain school of thinkers have in vain attempted to deny.”

    That said, it is hardly true that the works of many other 18th century British authors do not contain ideas similar to Hutcheson’s.  Such authors are often able to see further and more clearly than those who have come before by virtue of the privilege of, as Einstein put it, “sitting on the shoulders of giants.”  In Hutcheson’s case, one such giant was Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the third Earl of Shaftesbury.  Hutcheson certainly left no one in doubt concerning his debt to Shaftesbury in his own time.  Sir James MacKintosh, who left sketches of many forgotten British moral philosophers who are well worth reading today in his, “On the progress of ethical philosophy, chiefly during the XVIIth & XVIIIth centuries,” which first appeared as a supplement to the Encyclopedia Brittanica in 1829, went so far as to refer to Shaftesbury as Hutcheson’s “master.”  Although Shaftesbury was born in England, MacKintosh claimed that, “…the philosophy of Shaftesbury was brought by Hutcheson from Ireland,” after it and similar works had been suppressed in England for some time “by an exemplary but unlettered clergy.”

    Like Hutcheson, many of the themes in Shaftesbury’s writings would have sounded very familiar to modern evolutionary psychologists.  For example, he had this to say on the Blank Slate ideology of his day:

    It was Mr. Locke that struck at all fundamentals, threw all order and virtue out of the world, and made the very ideas of these… unnatural and without foundation in our minds.

    Locke, of course, is often cited as a forerunner of the Blank Slaters of the 20th century, although the comparison isn’t entirely accurate.  He rejected innate morality because it was incompatible with his Christian theology rather than the secular “progressive” ideology of a later day.

    The key theme of Hutcheson’s work as far as the modern science of morality is concerned – the existence of an innate “moral sense” – is, if anything, emphasized even more strongly in the writings of Shaftesbury.  For example, from his Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit, probably his most important work on morality as far as modern readers are concerned,

    Sense of right and wrong therefore being as natural to us as natural affection itself, and being a first principle in our constitution and make; there is no speculative opinion, persuasion or belief, which is capable immediately or directly to exclude or destroy it.  That which is of original and pure nature, nothing beside contrary habit or custom (a second nature) is able to displace.  And this affection being an original one of earliest rise in the soul or affectionate part; nothing beside a contrary affection, by frequent check and control, can operate upon it, so as either to diminish it in part, or destroy it in whole.

    A somewhat startling aspect of Shaftesbury’s work, given the time in which it was written, was his recognition of the continuity between human beings and other animal species.  For example, again from the Inquiry,

    We know that every creature has a private good and interest of his own, which Nature has compelled him to seek, by all the advantages afforded him within the compass of his make.  We know that there is in reality a right and a wrong state of every creature, and that this right one is by nature forwarded and by himself affectionately sought.


    We have found that, to deserve the name of good or virtuous, a creature most have all his inclinations and affections, his dispositions of mind and temper, suitable, and agreeing with the good of his kind, or of that system in which he is included, and of which he constitutes a part.

    and, finally,

    The ordinary animals appear unnatural and monstrous when they lose their proper instincts, forsake their kind, neglect their offspring, and pervert those functions or capacities bestowed by nature.  How wretched must it be, therefore, for man, of all other creatures, to lose that sense and feeling which is proper to him as a man, and suitable to his character and genius?

    If one didn’t know better, one might easily imagine that E. O. Wilson’s latest book, The Meaning of Human Existence, with its assertions about our “good” nature being the result of group selection, and our “evil” nature the result of selection at the level of the individual, had been inspired by Shaftesbury.  For example,

    There being allowed therefore in a creature such affections as these towards the common nature or system of the kind, together with those other which regard the private nature or self-system, it will appear that in following the first of these affections, the creature must on many occasions contradict and go against the latter.  How else should the species be preserved?  Or what would signify that implanted natural affection, by which a creature through so many difficulties and hazards preserves its offspring and supports its kind.

    One must hope that such passages won’t draw down on Shaftesbury’s head the anathemas of Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker as the great heresiarch of group selection theory.

    In a remarkable passage that might have been lifted from the pages of Westermarck, Shaftesbury reveals some doubt regarding the objective existence of good and evil, in spite of our tendency to imagine them in that way:

    If there be no real amiableness or deformity in moral acts, there is at least an imaginary one of full force.  Though perhaps the thing itself should not be allowed in nature, the imagination or fancy of it must be allowed to be from nature alone.  Nor can anything besides art and strong endeavor, with long practice and meditation, overcome such a natural prevention or prepossession of the mind in favor of this moral distinction.

    Finally, at the risk of exhausting the patience of even my most dogged readers, allow me to throw in another aspect of Shaftesbury’s writings that would put him “ahead of his time” even if he were alive today; his dispassionate and temperate comments on the subject of atheism.  Consider, for example, the following:

    …it does not seem, that atheism should of itself be the cause of any estimation or valuing of anything as fair, noble, and deserving which was the contrary.  It can never, for instance, make it be thought that the being able to eat man’s flesh, or commit bestiality, is good and excellent in itself.  But this is certain, that by means of corrupt religion or superstition, many things the most horridly unnatural and inhuman come to be received as excellent, good, and laudable in themselves.


    …religion, (according as the kind may prove) is capable of doing great good or harm, and atheism nothing positive in either way.   For however it may be indirectly an occasion of men’s losing a good and sufficient sense of right and wrong, it will not, as atheism merely, be the occasion of setting up a false species of it, which only false religion or fantastical opinion, derived commonly through superstition or credulity, is able to effect.

    To confirm those observations, one need look no further than recent events in the Middle East.  When it comes to “fantastical opinion, derived commonly through superstition or credulity,” the 20th century gave us two outstanding examples, in the form of Communism and Nazism.  Pundits like Bill O’Reilly claim that atheism itself is responsible for all the crimes of these modern secular versions of “corrupt religion.”  This was a form of bigotry of which Shaftesbury, writing three centuries earlier, give or take, was not capable.

    Of course, Shaftesbury no more wrote in a vacuum than Hutcheson.  Similar themes may be found in the work of many other British moral philosophers of the time.  In particular, Joseph Butler, like Hutcheson, borrowed heavily from Shaftesbury in developing his own ideas regarding the origins of morality in human nature.  Brief descriptions of the work of many others may be found in the book by Sir James MacKintosh referred to above, and in Michael Gill’s excellent book, The British Moralists on Human Nature and the Birth of Secular Ethics.