Posted on March 7th, 2014 No comments
If the world you imagine resembles a comic book, it could be there are some flaws in your fundamental assumptions. So it is with Catholic apologist Ross Douthat, whose fantasies would not be out of place in the literary productions of Dell or Marvel. However, they’re actually more likely to turn up on the opinion pages of the New York Times. That’s where I found his latest, entitled The Return of the Happy Atheist. It’s actually the second of a pair of replies to another collection of musings about atheism and the decline of belief by Adam Gopnik entitled Bigger than Phil, which recently appeared in The New Yorker.
For Douthat and many others like him, it’s impossible to conceive of atheism as simply a lack of belief in God or gods. He conceives of atheists as a monolithic outgroup, whose atheism implies all sorts of other ideological connections. He declares himself in broad agreement with Leszek Kolakowski, according to whom there was once a “cozy world” for our “movement” back in the days of the Enlightenment, under leaders such as Diderot, Feuerbach, and Helvetius, the latter of whom actually happened to be a deist. Then, Nietzsche announced the death of God, and since that day, “there have been no more happy atheists… that world was transformed into a place of endless anxiety and suffering. The absence of God became a permanently festering wound in the European spirit.”
No need to despair, fellow atheists! Douthat is pleased to announce that “we” have swung from “glad” to “sad” back to “glad” once again. In his words,
Among polemicists and philosophers alike, there’s what feels like a renewed confidence that all of the issues – moral, political, existential – that made the death of God seem like a kind of “wound” to so many 20th century writers have somehow been neatly wrapped up and resolved and can now be safely put aside.
And why have “we” all suddenly become so happy? Douthat notes that in the piece by Gopnik that he’s supposed to be writing about, the author claims that, at least in part, it’s because of “the broad prestige, in the past twenty years, of evolutionary biology.” And here is where things get really interesting. Douthat continues,
But he doesn’t pursue this idea quite far enough, writing that “the details of the new evolutionary theory are fairly irrelevant to the New Atheism.” which strikes me as quite wrong: It’s precisely the specifics of sociobiology, of evolutionary psychology, that have helped give atheism its swagger back, because ev-psych promises a theory of human culture in a way that other evolutionary theories don’t. And with that promise has come a sense, visible throughout atheist commentaries nowadays, that by explaining human culture in scientific terms they can also justify the parts of that culture that they find congenial, ground their liberal cosmopolitanism firmly in capital-S Science, and avoid the abysses that seemed to yawn beneath the 20th century’s feet. This reading of evolutionary psychology hasn’t quite made Nature itself seem completely “friendly” again, but it has ;made a kind of contemporary scientism seem friendlier to moral visions in general and the progressive moral vision in particular, in a way that has made “if there is no God, all is permitted” feel (to many writers, at least) like a less troubling point against atheism after all.
Amazing! Apparently David Bentley Hart, who included a fact-free diatribe against evolutionary psychology in his The Experience of God, the latest redoubt of Sophisticated Christians, isn’t just an outlier. It would seem the unfortunate evolutionary psychologists are doomed to be the whipping boys of ideological zealots of all stripes. The fact that conservative Christians are now piling on with the rest really stands things on their head.
Evolutionary psychology, referred to in the vernacular as “sociobiology” after E. O. Wilson coined the term, and even earlier, in the heyday of Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz, as “ethology,” although all three terms now have separate “academic” definitions, has long been, and to a large extent still is, the bête noire of the very leftist atheist “progressives” who Douthat claims now embrace it. Quick, someone run and tell John Horgan and Marshall Sahlins! Where on earth is this fable about New Atheists enthusiastically embracing evolutionary psychology coming from? Certainly not from Richard Dawkins, who declared in The Selfish Gene that Ur-evolutionary psychologist Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz were “totally and utterly wrong.” Jerry Coyne, who also spilled some ink over Douthat’s latest? I don’t think so! The latest I’ve seen emanating from that realm, Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes, embraces not EP, but John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism. His only interest in evolutionary psychology is in thinking up clever ways to circumvent its findings.
None of these Christian gentry seem to have the faintest clue that that basis of evolutionary psychology is merely the recognition that there actually is such a thing as human nature. The fact that it is now supposed to be “in fashion” is really nothing more than that recognition, following decades in which the so-called behavioral “sciences” were in thrall to the ludicrous ideological orthodoxies of the Blank Slate. Douthat is much more likely to hit pay dirt in his hunt for atheists whose tastes run to leftist progressivism among the flotsam and jetsam left over from the demise of that orthodoxy than in the EP journals.
None of that matters to the Douthats of the world, though. EP is too useful to their narrative to pay any attention to the truth. And it turns out that the narrative in question is nothing more sophisticated than the hoary old naturalistic fallacy. Quoting once again from the above passage, “…by explaining human culture in scientific terms they can also justify the parts of that culture that they find congenial.” In other words, hidden in some dark cranny of academia, New Atheists, who are not otherwise identified, are supposed to be busily cobbling the “is” of evolutionary psychology into the “ought” of their nefarious, godless philosophy. Whatever. I suppose it’s not much of a stretch if you actually believe the rest of Catholic dogma.
In any case, “we” the monolithic atheist “movement” of today, are now “glad” again, thanks to the crutch of evolutionary psychology combined with a generally benign and prosperous world. “We” are also no longer embarrassed by Communism, which, of course, “we” foisted on the world. That revelation came as news to me, an atheist who volunteered to fight Communism in Vietnam at a time when to do so was not considered fashionable.
No time for the “movement” to relax, though, fellow atheists! The far-seeing Douthat, after scrutinizing related articles in the opinion columns of the New York Times and running across some other articles in popular magazines that clearly reveal that we face “problems that should be obvious to those with eyes to see,” is convinced that the pendulum will soon swing back from “glad” to “sad” once again. “Dark forces,” he writes, are driving “secular liberalism toward the kind of intellectual crisis that seems to me to lurk, iceberg-like, somewhere out ahead.”
Well, to tell you the truth, as a conservative atheist I wouldn’t mind having a front row seat to watch that ship slip beneath the waves, either. The only problem is that, according to the Douthats of the world, people like me can’t exist.
Posted on March 5th, 2014 No comments
If there’s anything objectively immoral in this world, it’s translating Kafka’s “ungeheures Ungeziefer” in his Die Verwandlung as “giant insect.” The first time I picked up the English version and found that abomination, I grieved at the weakness of my native tongue. Now, at long last, I discover that I haven’t been alone. Others have noticed. Writing in the New Yorker, translator Susan Bernofsky discusses the problem:
The epithet ungeheueres Ungeziefer in the opening sentence poses one of the greatest challenges to the translator. Both the adjective ungeheuer (meaning “monstrous” or “huge”) and the noun Ungeziefer are negations— virtual nonentities—prefixed by un. Ungeziefer comes from the Middle High German ungezibere, a negation of the Old High German zebar (related to the Old English ti’ber), meaning “sacrifice” or “sacrificial animal.” An ungezibere, then, is an unclean animal unfit for sacrifice, and Ungeziefer describes the class of nasty creepy-crawly things. The word in German suggests primarily six-legged critters, though it otherwise resembles the English word “vermin” (which refers primarily to rodents). Ungeziefer is also used informally as the equivalent of “bug,” though the connotation is “dirty, nasty bug”—you wouldn’t apply the word to cute, helpful creatures like ladybugs. In my translation, Gregor is transformed into “some sort of monstrous insect” with “some sort of” added to blur the borders of the somewhat too specific “insect”; I think Kafka wanted us to see Gregor’s new body and condition with the same hazy focus with which Gregor himself discovers them.
Alas, “monstrous insect” is only marginally better than the ”giant insect” that I saw in my first English version, but not much, and “some sort of” really doesn’t help. In the first place, Ungeziefer probably isn’t the biggest problem here. Ungeheuer is at least as poorly translated as “monstrous” or “huge”. The noun Ungeheuer means a monster, but the adjective ungeheur does not mean monstrous. Its root, geheur, is associated with “home,” and has connotations of “familiar,” or “comfortable.” Thus, ungeheur does not necessarily mean “monstrous” in the sense of “big,” but something both terrible and outside the normal range of experience.
As Bernofsky says, Ungeziefer are usually insects or “bugs,” but they are also disgusting and usually parasitic. “Insect” just doesn’t get it. I think “vermin” would actually be better, but is also anything but a perfect solution, as Bernofsky points out. I find all this kind of scary, because my favorite author is Stendhal, and I don’t speak French. I know I must be missing something. Probably not as much as readers of Kafka who don’t speak German, though. He writes in a sort of ”chancellery German” that seems to make the world that much more indifferent to the amplified nightmares his heroes live in, and the nightmares that much more terrifying as a result. As Reiner Stach wrote in a piece on Kafka that turned up in The New Statesman,
In The Trial, we are drawn so compellingly into a story of pursuit and fear that it seems like a nightmare we all share, even though most people in the postwar west have not been subjected to anything nearly as extreme.
I recognize the nightmares in all of Kafkas novels. That’s what makes them so compelling. I think most people have lived through more or less watered down versions. Kafka just amplifies them, creating worlds of complete hopelessness and despair. I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it, though.
Posted on March 4th, 2014 No comments
The great French (or Italian, if you believe his gravestone. To make a long story short, he fell madly in love with a Milanese woman, who never said “yes”) novelist, Stendhal, had his own definitions of romanticism and classicism. As he wrote in his Racine and Shakespeare,
Romanticism is the art of presenting to different peoples those literary works which, in the existing state of their habits and beliefs, are capable of giving them the greatest possible pleasure.
Classicism, on the contrary, presents to them that literature which gave the greatest pleasure to their great-grandfathers.
His definition of culture was equally idiosyncratic. For him, genuine culture, whether music, art, poetry or prose, was a reflection of some aspect of the here and now. It was a reflection of the artist’s observation and experience of his own world. Classicists might entertain by resurrecting the cultural artifacts of bygone times, but, at least according to Stendhal, they were not creating culture in the process. Neither were artists like Sir Walter Scott, whose work represented for Stendhal a daydream about the past rather than a reflection of the present. In The Charterhouse of Parma, for example, the stifling reactionaries in post-Napoleonic Italy who were responsible for educating his hero, Fabrice, would allow him to read only the Bible, one or two official newspapers, and the works of Sir Walter Scott.
While I am not particularly enamored about the idea of attempting to return to bygone times, I am not particularly happy with the present, either. As a result, I have found little in what Stendhal would have considered the genuine culture of our time that I enjoy or appreciate. In general, some random poem from a dog-eared magazine of the 20′s or 30′s is more likely to bring a smile to my face than any of the contemporary stuff I’ve read for the last year or two. The same goes for serious fiction.
However, I keep searching. In fact, I just finished a book by a contemporary novelist that I actually liked. It’s Enduring Love, by Ian McEwan. I’ll even go so far as to say that I agree with some of the reviewer’s comments on the cover. For example, from The New York Review of Books, “[McEwan] is the quietest and most lucid of stylists, with never a word wasted or fumbled.” That’s no exaggeration. I found myself constantly smiling (and feeling envious) over McEwan’s skill in the use of words. However, I didn’t really connect with the characters or plot. McEwan is a screenwriter as well as a novelist, and I probably would have liked the story better in a movie rather than a serious novel. The “enduring love” referred to is actually a rare, psychotic malady know as de Clerambault’s Syndrome, and things happen that are possible, but are nothing that an average human is likely to experience in the course of a lifetime. I don’t doubt that the characters are accurate representations of people McEwan has run across, but they are alien to me. I prefer characters in my novels that I can recognize immediately. Stendhal may have written a long time ago, but I stumble across many of them in his work, and I actually turn up myself occasionally. No doubt that’s why Nietzsche spoke of him as “the last great psychologist.”
However, there are some brilliant insights and uncanny reflections of the present in Enduring Love. For example, my jaw dropped when I read things like,
And what, in fact, were the typical products of the twentieth-century scientific or pseudo-scientific mind? Anthropology, psychoanalysis-fabulation run riot. Using the highesst methods of storytelling and all the arts of priesthood, Freud had staked his claim on the veracity, though not the falsifiability of science. And what of those behaviorists and sociologist of the 1920′s? It was as though an army of white-coated Balzacs had stormed the university departments and labs. (Italics mine)
I had set aside this day to start on a long piece about the smile. A whole issue of an American science magazine was to be dedicated to what the editor was calling an intellectual revolution. Biologists and evolutionary psychologists were reshaping the social sciences. The postwar consensus, the standard social-science model, was falling apart, and human nature was up for reexamination.
Hows that for an example of Stendhal’s genuine culture as a reflection of contemporary reality? Great shades of Arrowsmith! I found myself scratching my head and wondering how many readers of a novel with a title like Enduring Love would have so much as an inkling of what the writer was talking about. You really have to have some serious insight into what’s been going on in the behavioral sciences to write things like that.
How about this one:
We (the two main characters) were having one of our late-night kitchen table sessions. I told her I thought she had spent too much time lately in the company of John Keats. A genius, no doubt, but an obscurantist, too, who had thought science was robbing the world of wonder when the opposite was the case.
I couldn’t agree more. And last but not least, there’s this, about the metamorphosis of literature from the 19th to now:
Most educated people read contemporary novels. Storytelling was deep in the 19th century soul. Then two things happened. Science became more difficult, and it became professionalized. It moved into the universities; parsonical narratives gave way to hard-edged theories that could survive intact without experimental support and that had their own formal aesthetic. At the same time, in literature and in other arts, a newfangled modernism celebrated formal, structural qualities, inner coherence, and self-reference. A priesthood guarded the temples of this difficult art against the trespasses of the common man.
Sounds plausible to me. Maybe that’s why contemporary literature and poetry seem so foreign to me. We could use another guy who has the nerve to pull down the temples. Meanwhile, it appears the book has been made into a film. I’ll have to check it out.
Posted on March 3rd, 2014 2 comments
Good and Evil are not objective things. They exist as subjective impressions, creating a powerful illusion that they are objective things. This illusion that Good and Evil are objects independent of the conscious minds that imagine them exists for a good reason. It “works.” In other words, its existence has enhanced the probability that the genes responsible for its existence will survive and reproduce. At least this was true at the time that the mental machinery we lump together under the rubric if morality evolved. Unfortunately, it is no longer necessarily true today. Times have changed rather drastically, making it all the more important that, when we speak of Good and Evil, we actually know what we’re talking about.
Philosophers, of course, have been “explaining” morality to the rest of us for millennia, erecting all sorts of complicated systems based on the false fundamental assumption that the illusion is real. Now that the cat is out of the bag and the rest of us are finally showing signs of catching up with Darwin and Hume, it’s no wonder they’re feeling a little defensive. Wouldn’t you be upset if you’d devoted a lot of time to struggling through Kant’s incredibly obscure and convoluted German prose, only to discover that his categorical imperative is based on assumptions about reality that are fundamentally flawed?
A typical reaction has been to assert that the truth can’t be the truth because they would be unhappy with it. For example, they tell us that, if the enhanced probability that certain genes would survive is the ultimate reason for the very existence of morality, then it follows that,
• We must all become moral relativists
• Punishment of criminals will be unjustified if Good and Evil are mere subjective impressions, and thus ultimately matters of opinion.
• We cannot object to being robbed if some individuals have genes that predispose them to steal.
• We cannot object to racism, anti-Semitism, religious bigotry, etc., it they are “in our genes.”
…and so on, and so on. It’s as if we’re forbidden to act morally without the permission of philosophers and theologians. I’ve got news for them. We’ll continue to act morally, continue to be moral absolutists, and continue to punish criminals. Why? Because Mother Nature wants it that way. It is our nature to act morally, to perceive Good and Evil as absolutes, and to punish free riders. If you need evidence, look at Richard Dawkins’ tweets. He’s a New Atheist, yet at the same time the most moralistic and self-righteous of men. If asked to provide a rational basis for his moralizations, he would go wading off into an intellectual swamp. That hardly keeps him from moralizing. In other words, morality works whether you can come up with a “rational” basis for the existence of Good and Evil or not. Furthermore, morality is the only game in town for regulating our social interactions with a minimum of mayhem. As a species, we’re much too stupid to begin analyzing all our actions rationally with respect to their potential effects on our genetic destiny.
Other than that, of course, the truth about morality is what it is whether the theologians and philosophers approve of the truth or not. They can like it or lump it. My personal preference would be to keep it simple, and limit its sphere to the bare necessities. We should also understand it. In an environment radically different than the one in which it evolved, it can easily become pathological, prompting us to do things that are self-destructive, and potentially suicidal. It would be useful to recognize such situations as they arise. It would also be useful to promote instant recognition of the pathologically pious among us. Their self-righteous posing can quickly become a social irritant. In such cases, it can’t hurt to point out that they lack any logical basis for applying their subjective versions of Good and Evil to the rest of us.
Posted on March 2nd, 2014 No comments
The notion that the suite of behavioral traits we associate with morality is dual in nature goes back at least a century. It was first formalized back in the 40′s by Sir Arthur Keith, who wrote,
Human nature has a dual constitution; to hate as well as to love are parts of it; and conscience may enforce hate as a duty just as it enforces the duty of love. Conscience has a two-fold role in the soldier: it is his duty to save and protect his own people and equally his duty to destroy their enemies… Thus conscience serves both codes of group behavior; it gives sanction to practices of the code of enmity as well as the code of amity.
Seeing that all social animals behave in one way to members of their own community and in an opposite manner to those of other communities, we are safe in assuming that early humanity, grouped as it was in the primal world, had also this double rule of behavior. At home they applied Huxley’s ethical code, which is Spencer’s code of amity; abroad their conduct was that of Huxley’s cosmic code, which is Spencer’s code of enmity.
Robert Ardrey combined the two words and gave them a Freudian twist to come up with a term for the phenomenon. Writing during the heyday of the Blank Slate, long before Sociobiology was even a twinkle in E. O. Wilson’s eye, he called it the Amity/Enmity Complex. The truth that it exists is highly corrosive to utopian schemes for “human flourishing” of all stripes, from Communism to the more up-to-date versions favored by the likes of Sam Harris and Joshua Greene. As a result, it is also a truth that has been furiously resisted, obvious explanation though it is for the warfare that has been such a ubiquitous aspect of our history as well as such phenomena as racism, religious bigotry, homophobia, etc., all of which are really just different varieties of outgroup identification.
The current situation in Ukraine, dangerous though it is, presents us with a splendid laboratory for studying the Complex. The underlying manifestation is, of course, nationalism, a form of ingroup identification that has been a thorn in our collective sides since the French Revolution. It was the inspiration for the panacea of “national self-determination” after World War I, based on the disastrously flawed assumption that nice, clean national boundaries could be drawn that would all enclose so many pristine, pure ethnic states. In reality, no such pristine territories existed, and “national self-determination” became a vehicle for the persecution of ethnic minorities all over Europe. Human nature hasn’t changed, and it continues to function in the same way today. For example, in the immediate aftermath of the overthrow of Yanukovych, the Ukrainian majority ingroup quickly began acting like one. A Jewish community center and synagogue were firebombed. The new rump parliament almost immediately voted to eliminate Russian as an official language, relegating Russian speakers to the status of second class citizens.
Such high-handed actions were virtually ignored in western Europe and the United States, where the collective memory of the Russians as outgroup, still strong more than two decades after the fall of Communism, insured that the Ukrainian nationalists would be perceived as the “good guys.” Oblivious to the fact that they had quite recently established a precedent by collaborating in the chopping off of a piece of Serbia and handing it to an ethnic minority, and ignoring such theoretical niceties as the claim that, if the Ukrainian majority in the west of the country had a right to vote itself special rights in the west of the country, the Russian majority in the east of the country must have similar rights in their territories, they began a war of words against the Russians, claiming that their occupation of the Crimea and protection of the Russian majority there was unheard of.
In a word, there is nothing rational about what is going on in Ukraine unless one takes into account the behavioral idiosyncrasies of our species that predispose us to perceive the world in terms of ingroups and outgroups. Such manifestations are hardly unique to Ukraine,. Just look around on the Internet a little. It’s full of a bewildering array of ideological, religious, ethnic, and political ingroups, all busily engaged in cementing “amity” within the group, and all with comment sections full of “enmity” directed at their respective outgroups in the form of furious anathemas and denunciations.
The “Complex” is inseparable from human moral behavior. No morality will ever exist that doesn’t come complete with its own outgroup. Think we can “expand our consciousness” until our ingroup includes all mankind? Dream on! The “other” will always be there. The “Complex” is the main reason that puttering away at new moralities is so dangerous. No matter how idealistic their intentions, the outgroup will always remain. We saw how that worked in the 20th century, with the annihilations of millions in the Jewish outgroup of the Nazis, and millions more in the “bourgeois” outgroup of the Communists. Before we start playing with fire again, it would probably behoove us to finally recognize the ways in which it can burn us.
Posted on February 26th, 2014 No comments
Every day in every way things are getting better and better. Well, all right, maybe that’s a stretch, but now and then, things actually do take a turn for the better, at least from my point of view. Take this interview of Oliver Scott Curry at the This View of Life website, for example. Here’s a young guy who gets human nature, and gets morality, and isn’t in the least bit afraid to talk about them as matter-of-factly as if he were discussing the weather. Have a look at some of the things this guy says:
MICHAEL PRICE (Interviewer): What can evolutionary approaches tell us about human moral systems that other approaches cannot tell us? That is, what unique and novel insights about morality does an evolutionary approach provide?
OLIVER SCOTT CURRY: Well, everything. It can tell us what morality is, where it comes from, and how it works. No other approach can do that. The evolutionary approach tells us that morality is a set of biological and cultural strategies for solving problems of cooperation and conflict. We have a range of moral instincts that are natural selection’s attempts to solve these problems. They are sophisticated versions of the kind of social instincts seen in other species…Above all, the evolutionary approach demystifies morality and brings it down to earth. It tells us that morality is just another adaptation that can be studied in the same way as any other aspect of our biology or psychology.
PRICE: The ordinary view in biology is that adaptations evolve primarily to promote individual fitness (survival and reproduction of self/kin). Do you believe that this view is correct with regard to the human biological adaptations that generate moral rules? Does this view imply that individuals moralize primarily to promote their own fitness interests (as opposed to promoting, e.g., group welfare)? (TVOL editor David Sloan Wilson is one of the foremost advocates of group selection, ed.)
CURRY: No. Adaptations evolve to promote the replication of genes; natural selection cannot work any other way. Genes replicate by means of the effects that they have on the world; these effects include the formation of things like chromosomes, multicellular individuals, and groups. (My understanding is that everyone agrees about this, although there is some debate about whether groups are sufficiently coherent to constitute vehicles .)
PRICE: What work by others on the evolution of morality (or just on morality in general) have you found most enlightening?
CURRY: David Hume’s work has been particularly inspiring. In many ways he is the great-great-great granddaddy of evolutionary psychology. He almost stumbled upon the theory of evolution. He undertook a comparative “anatomy of the mind” that showed “the correspondence of passions in men and animals.” His “bundle theory of the self” hints at massive modularity. His A Treatise of Human Nature  introduced “the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects,” and discusses relatedness, certainty of paternity, coordination and convention, reciprocal exchange, costly signals, dominance and submission, and the origins of property. He even anticipated by-product theories of religion, describing religious ideas as “the playsome whimsies of monkies in human shape” . Remarkable.
Remarkable, indeed! Curry just rattles off stuff that’s been hidden in plain sight for the last 100 years, but that would have brought his career to a screeching halt not that long ago. Beginning in the 1920′s, the obscurantists of the Blank Slate controlled the message about human nature in both the scientific and popular media for more than 50 years. They imposed a stifling orthodoxy on the behavioral sciences that rendered much of the work in those fields as useless and irrelevant as the thousands of tomes about Marxism that were published during the heyday of the Soviet Union. Their grip was only broken when a few brave authors stood up to them, and it became obvious to any 10-year-old that their “science” was absurd. This should never, ever be forgotten in our hubris over the triumphs of science. When the “men of science” start declaring that they have a monopoly on the truth, and that anyone who disagrees with them is not only wrong, but evil, it’s reasonable to suspect that what they’re promoting isn’t the truth, but an ideological narrative.
It’s refreshing, indeed, to hear from someone who, in spite of the fact that he clearly understands where morality comes from, doesn’t immediately contradict that knowledge by spouting nonsense about moral “truths.” At least in this interview, I find nothing like Sam Harris’ delusions about “scientific moral truths,” or Jonathan Haidt’s delusions about “anthropocentric moral truths, or Joshua Greene’s delusions about “utilitarian moral truths.” I can but hope that Curry will never join them in their wild goose chase after the will-o’-the-wisp of “human flourishing.”
At the end of the interview, Curry reveals that he’s also aware of another aspect of human morality that makes many otherwise sober evolutionary psychologists squirm; our tendency to see the world in terms of ingroups and outgroups. When Price questions him about the most important unsolved scientific puzzles in evolutionary moral psychology he replies that one of the questions that keeps him up at night is, “Why are people so quick to divide the world into ‘us and them’? Why not just have a bigger us? (I’d like to see an answer rooted in three-player game theory.)”
Hey, three-player game theory is fine with me, as long as we finally realize that the ingroup-outgroup thing is a fundamental aspect of human moral behavior, and one that it would behoove us to deal with rationally assuming we entertain hopes for the survival of our species. As it happens, that’s easier said than done. The academic milieu that is home to so many of the moral theorists and philosophers of our day has long been steeped in an extremely moralistic culture; basically a secular version of the Puritanism of the 16th and 17th centuries, accompanied by all the manifestations of self-righteous piety familiar to historians of that era. It is arguably more difficult for such people to give up any rational basis for their addiction to virtuous indignation and the striking of highly ostentatious pious poses than it is for them to give up sex. For them, the “real” Good must prevail. As a result we have such gaudy and delusional “solutions” to the problem as Joshua Greene’s proposal that we simply stifle our moral emotions in favor of his “real” utilitarian morality, Sam Harris’ more practical approach of simply dumping everyone who doesn’t accept his “scientific” morality into a brand new outgroup, and various schemes for “expanding” our ingroup to include all mankind.
Sorry, it won’t work. Ingroups and outgroups ain’t goin’ nowhere. Stifle racism, and religious bigotry will take its place. Stifle religious bigotry, and homophobia will jump in to take over. Stifle all those things, and there will always be a few deluded souls around who dare to disagree with you. They, in their turn, will become your new outgroup. The outgroup have ye always with you. Better understand the problem than pretend it’s not there.
As for Curry’s suggestion that we declare Hume the father of evolutionary psychology, nothing could please me more.
Posted on February 24th, 2014 No comments
Robert Trivers is a giant in the field of evolutionary biology. The brilliance of his work has not faded over time, and has been in a field that is highly relevant to us all. He has greatly enhanced our ability to understand ourselves. It’s difficult to overestimate the impact of his work. I just started reading a copy of novelist Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, and was amazed to find artifacts of Trivers’ famous parental investment theory in the opening chapters! If he were Japanese, the man would probably be declared one of the country’s living national treasures. Not here, though. Here it seems his reward is coming in the form of a constant stream of abuse from the Rutgers administration.
I posted a bit about Trivers last year. He had accused one of his graduate students of fraud in a scientific paper. One of his colleagues who supported the alleged fraudster claimed that Trivers “frightened him in his office.” For that he was banned from campus. Now we learn he has aroused the ire of the Rutgers bureaucrats yet again. Apparently Trivers objected to teaching a course on “Human Aggression,” claiming that he lacked expertise in the subject. According to Kelly Heyboer of the New Jersey Star-Ledger, when forced to teach it anyway, “Trivers told students he would do his best to learn the subject with the students and teach the class with the help of a guest lecturer.” For this, he was suspended. According to Trivers, top university officials refused to even meet with him to discuss the subject.
Can anyone who hasn’t been asleep for the last 50 years possibly fail to understand why someone like Trivers would object to teaching a class on “Human Aggression” in the context of evolutionary biology? It has been the subject of furious ideological battles ever since Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz’ publication of On Aggression. Forcing a scientist of Trivers’ stature to teach a course on the subject amounts to setting him up as a target for the zealots on both sides of the ideological barricades. It is hard to explain such an act by Rutgers as other than either a malicious provocation or stupidity.
I admire Trivers for fighting back. As a professor with tenure nearing the end of his career, at least he’s in a position where he can fight back. If you’ve ever seen the curriculum vitae of a young, tenure track assistant professor at a major university, you know the competition they face is fierce. Without a gazillion publications, citations, invited talks, outside activities, prestigious awards, etc., they don’t even stand a chance. For them, resistance to these bullies would be suicidal. Trivers isn’t such an easy mark.
Still, it’s stunning to me that Rutgers can get away with this kind of abuse, and that it passes almost unnoticed, not only in the popular media, but in the science journals and websites as well. Where are the other greats in the field? Apparently, they “just don’t want to get involved.” Trivers may not be the easiest man to get along with, but he deserves better.
Posted on February 23rd, 2014 No comments
There are lots of great ideas out there for improving the way we do nuclear power. For instance, Transatomic Power recently proposed a novel type of molten salt reactor (MSR). The Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) Industry Alliance, with support from the U.S. Department of Energy, has chosen a high temperature gas reactor (HTGR) as its reactor of the future candidate. Small modular reactors (SMRs) are all the rage, and a plethora of designs have been proposed. Unlike the others, Terrapower’s traveling wave reactor (TWR), which is backed by Bill Gates, actually has a fighting chance to be built in the foreseeable future – in China. With the possible exception of SMR’s, which have strong military support, the chances of any of them being built in the United States in the foreseeable future are slim. Government, the courts, and a nightmarish regulatory process stand in the way as an almost insuperable barrier.
It wasn’t always this way. A lot of today’s “novel” concepts are based on ideas that were proposed many decades ago. We know they work, because demonstration reactors were built to try them out. More than a dozen were built at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. No less than 53 were built at Idaho National Laboratory! Virtually all of them were completed more than half a century ago. There are few historical precedents that can match the sudden collapse from the vitality of those early years to the lethargy and malaise prevailing in the nuclear industry today. It’s sad, really, because the nuclear plants that actually are on line and/or under construction are artifacts of a grossly wasteful, potentially dangerous, and obsolete technology.
The light water reactors (LWRs) currently producing energy in this country use only a tiny fraction of the energy available in their uranium fuel, producing dangerous transuranic actinides that can remain highly radioactive for millennia in the process. Many of the new designs are capable of extracting dozens of times more energy from a given quantity of fuel than LWRs. Molten salt reactors would operate far more efficiently, could not melt down, and would consume dangerous actinides in the process, leaving such a small quantity of waste after several decades of operation that it would be less radioactive than the original ore used to fuel the reactor after a few hundred years rather than many millennia. Besides also being immune to meltdown, HTGRs, because of their much higher operating temperatures, could enable such things as highly efficient electrolysis of water to produce hydrogen fuel and greatly improved extraction techniques for oil and natural gas from shale and sand. Why, then, aren’t we building these improved designs?
It’s highly unlikely that the necessary initiative will come from industry. Why would they care? They’re in the business to make a profit, and LWRs can be built and operated more cheaply than the alternatives. Why should they worry about efficiency? There’s plenty of cheap uranium around, and it’s unlikely there will be major shortages for decades to come. Ask any industry spokesman, and he’ll assure you that transuranic radioactive waste and the potential proliferation issues due to the plutonium content of spent LWR fuel are mere red herrings. I’m not so sure.
In other words, strong government leadership would be needed to turn things around. Unfortunately, that commodity is in short supply. The current reality is that government is a highly effective deterrent to new reactor technology. Take the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for example. Read Kafka’s The Trial and you’ll have a pretty good idea of how it operates. So you want to license a new reactor design, do you? Well, most of the current regulations apply specifically to LWRs, so you’ll have to give them time to come up with new ones. Then you’ll need to spend at least a decade and millions of dollars explaining your new technology to the NRC bureaucrats. Then you can expect an endless stream of requests for additional information, analysis of all the threat and failure scenarios they can dream up, etc., which will likely take a good number of additional years. After all, they have to justify their existence, don’t they? If you ever manage to get past the NRC, the court system will take things up where they left off.
What to do? I don’t know. It really doesn’t upset me when reactors built with legacy technology are pulled off line, and replaced with fossil fueled plants. They just waste most of their fuel, throwing away energy that future generations might sorely miss once they’ve finally burned through all the coal and oil on the planet. Maybe the best thing to do would be to just buy up all the available uranium around and wait. We might also stop the incredibly block-headed practice of converting all of our “depleted” uranium into ammunition. The Lone Ranger’s silver bullets were cheap by comparison. Future generations are likely to wonder what on earth we were thinking.
Things were a lot better in the “apathetic” 50′s, but the novelist Thomas Wolfe had it right. You can’t go home again.
Posted on February 21st, 2014 2 comments
In my last post I noted Jonathan Haidt’s classification of facts as “anthropocentric” and “non-anthropocentric” in his refutation of Sam Harris’ scientific morality. The terms were coined by philosopher David Wiggins, and Haidt defines them as follows:
Facts of chemistry, physics, and other hard sciences are non-anthropocentric. They do not depend on any aspect of human nature. If intelligent aliens had come to visit the earth long before humans appeared, they would have found that the earth is the third planet from the sun, and that copper is a better conductor of electricity than is aluminum.
Anthropocentric facts, in contrast, are only true given the kinds of creatures that we happen to be, due to the twists and turns of our evolutionary history. Examples include the facts that sugar is sweeter than ascorbic acid, and that extended solitary confinement is painful. Those are not just my personal opinions; they are facts about sugar and isolation.
As I pointed out earlier, the value of such terms is dubious. When applied to morality, they are downright misleading, because they rationalize the elevation of moral judgments to the status of “facts.”
Consider the examples given of the sweetness of sugar and the pain of solitary confinement. “Sweet” describes a sensation experienced through one of the senses, namely, taste. Senses are diagnostic tools that evolved because they enabled the life forms that possessed them to perceive facts about the environment, the knowledge of which made it more likely that they would survive and reproduce. If we taste something as sweet, or feel it as hard, or see it as green, those impressions tell us something about the real, physical nature of the objects we are sensing. All these subjective impressions are referred to in the jargon of philosophy as “qualia.” Philosophers argue endlessly over the nature of their existence, whether they can exist in the context of materialism, their implications for the mind-body problem, etc., etc. Sophisticated Christians even use them to bamboozle themselves and amaze their friends with fancy proofs of the existence of God. That’s neither here nor there as far as this blog post is concerned. What matters is that all of them exist because, at some point in the past, their existence enhanced the probability that our ancestors would survive and reproduce, and that all of them are subjective impressions in the minds of individuals.
To the extent that they are “facts,” then, these qualia exist only as such subjective impressions. Physical objects can give rise to them (in the case of sense perceptions) or not (in the case of subjective impressions of good, evil, rights, values, etc.), and they can communicate information about the qualities of physical objects. However, they are not physical aspects of the objects in themselves. For that reason, it can be very misleading to label them as facts, even if one tosses in the qualifying adjective “anthropocentric.” They are only “facts” if one bears constantly in mind exactly what kind of “facts” they are.
Haidt’s essay is a case in point. Having introduced the term “anthropocentric,” he immediately begins using it as a rationalization for converting subjective to objective. In the end, he drops the adjective altogether, and suddenly, we no longer find ourselves talking about subjective impressions, but simply about “facts.” He begins his perambulation into the swamp by claiming that his own, subjective impressions must necessarily be the same as everyone elses:
Those are not just my personal opinions; they are facts about sugar and isolation.
In fact, they are his personal opinions. I firmly believe Mother Nature has been parsimonious in this affair, and hasn’t gone to the trouble of having everyone experience “sweet” and “pain” differently, but I have no way of proving it. As the philosopher Daniel Dennett pointed out, qualia are private. In other words, there is no way for me to describe to a blind person precisely what I mean when I say describe something as “red.” Haidt continues with such remarkable assertions as,
Because of our shared evolutionary history, it will be an anthropocentric fact everywhere that sugar is sweeter than ascorbic acid. Yet many other anthropocentric facts are emergent –– they emerge only when people interact, in a particular cultural or historical era. Prices are a good example: It is a fact that gold is more valuable than silver. That is not just my opinion.
I’m sure Haidt could argue very convincingly that gold really is more valuable than silver. The last time I checked, the price of gold was 60 times that of silver, give or take. However, that price is the distillation of subjective value judgments by many individuals. It has nothing to do with the objective nature of gold or silver, nor does it make sense to insist that gold “really” is more valuable than silver unless we are careful to add that we are speaking of subjective impressions as they exist at a given time and place. It is also a “fact” that when people read a statement like, “It is a fact that gold is more valuable than silver,” they will take it to mean just what it says, without calling to mind any hair-splitting distinctions between “anthropocentric” and “non-anthropocentric.”
This willy-nilly conflating of objective and subjective continues when Haidt finally gets around to discussing the theme of his essay; morality. Suddenly, all the adjectives somehow melt off the “emergent culture-specific anthropocentric truths” Haidt was talking about in earlier paragraphs, and we find them standing there naked as simple “truths.” For example,
I believe that moral truths are of this sort. This still makes it possible to critique practices in other cultures. All cuisines are not equal – French cuisine was better than 1950s American, and Julia Child offered Americans a way to improve. Similarly, a culture that oppresses categories of people against their will is worse than one that does not. Massive human rights violations, in which large numbers of victims are crying out for foreign assistance, can justify a military response from other nations. But the fact that humanity has reached that point is an emergent fact about modernity and our changing moral standards.
Here, Haidt has ended by bamboozling himself. In the end, the difference between him and Harris isn’t one of substance, but of a mere sterile quibble over which “facts” can be described as “scientific” and which not. Other than Haidt’s qualification that the “facts” only apply at a given place and time, after “emerging,” the result is exactly the same. The subjective strings drop away, and impressions in the minds of individuals suddenly and magically acquire normative powers over other individuals. Some cultures really are “worse” than others. Some military responses really are “just.” In the last sentence of Haidt’s quote, we find that the impressions that some cultures are “bad” and some military interventions are “just” can be transmogrified into “facts” merely by virtue of a shift in popular opinion. Thanks to this magic elixir, the impressions “good” and “evil” spring out of their cocoons, and emerge as full-fledged Things-in-Themselves. From good and evil, they are transformed into ”Good” and “Evil,” complete with the autonomous power to bludgeon anyone who doesn’t happen to be quite on the same page with Haidt’s or Harris’ version of modernity.
Haidt is really too smart for this. It’s hard for me to imagine how he could come up with stuff like this after writing a book like The Righteous Mind, unless he’s finally succumbed to the moralistic bullying that Harris invariably resorts to when anyone points out the obvious absurdity of his “scientific morality.” Perhaps it finally became unbearable to Haidt to have to put up with accusations that he is “evil” because he doesn’t believe that female genital mutilation, for example, is objectively “bad.” In the end, he cooked up this stew of philosophical leftovers so he, too, could declare, in the odor of sanctity, and without qualification, that, “Female genital mutilation is bad.”
As it happens, the subjective impression that FGM is bad exists in my consciousness, too. I hope many others will agree with me, and that together we can end FGM once and for all. I am no “moral relativist.” Unlike Haidt and Harris, I have gone beyond the writing of essays and have taken up a weapon to fight for these subjective impressions of mine in the past. I found these impressions, these whims, if you will, entirely adequate to justify my actions to myself. It is simply worth it to me to put my life on the line to end certain things that I don’t want to live with. However, it was never necessary for me to stoop to the lazy conceit that I was fighting for the Good-in-Itself. Indeed, I am firmly convinced there is no such thing. And while Haidt may be disappointed to hear it, there is also no such thing as an emergent, culture-specific, anthropocentric Good-in-Itself.
Posted on February 18th, 2014 No comments
Four of the editors at David Sloan Wilson’s This View of Life website have submitted essays in response to Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape Challenge. That challenge was to refute the central premise of Harris’ book, The Moral Landscape, which is as follows:
Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of the universe (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, questions of morality and values must have right and wrong answers that fall within the purview of science (in principle, if not in practice). Consequently, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.
All of the four editors (Jiro Tanaka, Michael Price, Mark Sloan, and Jonathan Haidt) are apparently aware that moral emotions exist because they evolved. At least one of them, Haidt, has read, understood, and quotes at length in his own work David Hume’s masterful demonstration that it is impossible to use reason to establish moral truths in his A Treatise of Human Nature. It is a testimony to the powerful force of the illusions that the process of evolution has planted in our minds, causing us to interpret our emotional responses as actual objects or things that exist independently of our minds, that none of the four could supply a simple, straightforward response to the challenge. In fact, to a greater or lesser extent, all four of them, with the possible exception of Haidt, actually agreed with Harris, at least by implication, that the illusions are real.
It boggles the mind, really. Presumably all four of these gentlemen are aware that moral emotions are just that – moral emotions. The ultimate cause of those emotions, and the only reason that they exist at all, is evolution by natural selection. One can pontificate about the wild and spectacular differences in the actual manner in which those emotions are expressed in different human cultures all day long, but the ultimate cause remains the same. Evolved traits do not have a purpose. Purpose implies a creator, and presumably all four reject that hypothesis. Moral emotions, like every other evolved trait, exist because their presence increased the probability that the genes responsible for the existence of those traits would survive and reproduce. Moral emotions, and the associated illusions of the existence of Good and Evil as things in themselves, exist as subjective impressions in the minds of individuals. There is no way in which they can acquire the power to transcend those individual minds, and acquire some kind of a mysterious “scientific” normative power over other individuals. There is no way that they can magically acquire a purpose.
So much is really obvious without the benefit of Darwin’s theories. Suppose there were no human beings in the universe. Would morality exist? Would one stone on some rocky planet be “Good,” and another “Evil?” Obviously, the answer is no. Now supply that universe with one human individual with the usual suite of moral emotions. Would the presence of those emotions in the mind of one individual suddenly change everything? Would objective Good and Evil suddenly ripple out from the mind of that one individual at the speed of light, acquiring some kind of normative power independent of the mind of the individual throughout the entire universe? No. Suppose we supplied the universe with more such individuals. Is there any conceivable way in which the moral emotions of the first individual could jump out of his skull, acquire an independent existence of their own, and acquire the power to prescribe to the newcomers what they, too, are bound to agree are Good and Evil? No.
Still, the illusions commonly trump reality, even in the most carefully reasoned attempts to approach the subject of morality. Like Kafka’s Castle, it beckons like a real thing, yet remains out of reach. Mother Nature didn’t mess around. As if taunting their authors, she left her stamp on all four essays. In the first, entitled Necessary but not Sufficient, Jiro Tanaka, immediately concedes that the term well-being, as used by Harris, “carries moral weight.” Really? What on earth does he mean by that? How can something have “moral weight” unless there is some objective standard by which to measure that weight? Reading further in the essay, we find that Tanaka doesn’t really disagree with Harris at all about the possibility of a “scientific morality.” He’s simply quibbling about how to get there. For example, he writes,
Harris’s “multiple peaks” argument sidesteps the fact that a concern for well-being, while a necessary condition for a scientific morality, is still far from sufficient.
Despite the presence of irrationality in academe, there are also rational scholars who are conversant with modern science. How is “science” in the broad sense any different from the best moral philosophy and political science as we have it already?
In other words, there actually is a “scientific morality,” which enables us, among other things, to establish a Good by which we can answer such questions as what is the “best” moral philosophy. There’s no fundamental disagreement here at all; just a minor squabble over details. Chalk up one for Harris.
In his How Science Can Help Us Be More Reasonable About Morality, Price has apparently concluded, against all reason, that Harris is unaware of the evolutionary wellsprings of morality. The man has a degree in philosophy from Stanford and a Ph.D. in neuroscience, and yet Price presumes to lecture him like a child about the characteristics of our moral emotions. For example, he writes,
Humans are adapted to strive for goals that would have promoted their individual fitness (genetic survival and reproduction) in the evolutionary past.
If people use moral rules to better pursue their shared interests, then it becomes clear why Harris’ proposal – that reason-based morality ought to promote the well-being of conscious creatures – will not generally apply. People judge the reasonableness of a moral rule not by how much it benefits conscious beings in general, or even other people in general, but primarily by how much they perceive the rule to promote the interests they share with their group.
A promising start, and yet, somehow, Price cannot cut to the chase and pin down the reasons why Harris’ attempts to redirect morality “will not generally apply.” Instead, his cart runs into the same rut as Tanaka’s. He, too, ends up actually agreeing with Harris that a particular version of the Good is real; apparently the one currently favored in the ivory towers of academia. His only problem with Sam is that he hasn’t chosen the optimum path to approach it. After carefully explaining to the infant Sam the basic characteristics of evolved human moral emotions, he cobbles together his own approach to the summum bonum of “well-being.” Choosing as his example the problem of income inequality, he writes,
The wealthier classes tend to argue that inequality is morally justified (e.g., “It’s the result of rewarding people who work harder than others”), whereas the more deprived classes tend to say it’s immoral (e.g., “It results from unequal opportunities”).
Then, in what must come as an epiphany to Sam, he reveals that a couple of academics named Wilkinson and Pickett have triumphantly solved the problem! All that’s necessary to get the lion to lie down with the lamb is to explain to them that they will be much better off forming a bigger “group” whose “well-being” will best be served by (you guessed it), adopting the Good favored in academia. He writes,
Wilkinson and Pickett attempt to transcend this conflict by focusing on inequality’s impact on the larger group to which both coalitions belong: They present evidence that countries with higher inequality score worse on many different indicators of national performance. Their analysis has not been without its critics, but regardless, they have the right idea about how to be reasonable about morality: They attempt to assess the moral value of a group’s practice by investigating how successfully that practice has been in promoting the group members’ shared interests. Their analysis indicates how an appeal to a higher-level coalitional interest (the national interest) could help transcend lower-level coalitional conflicts between socioeconomic classes.
One can just imagine Harris (and Karl Marx) slapping their foreheads at this point and exclaiming, “Gee, why didn’t I think of that!” All we need to do to get those greedy rich people to joyfully redistribute all their wealth is to dump a batch of “studies” in their lap about the correlation between high income inequality and national performance! Then the scales will fall from their eyes and they will become truly Good, or, as Price puts it, they will finally grasp the “moral value” of coughing up their wealth. In other words, Price doesn’t dispute the existence of “moral value.” He just has his own ideas about how to approach it. Chalk up number two for Harris.
On to the third essay. The first few paragraphs of Mark Sloan’s essay, Mainstream science of morality contradicts Sam Harris’ central claim, are even more promising than Price’s. He writes,
…the largest component of what people consider morality is a natural phenomenon with the universal function of increasing the benefits of cooperation in groups; however, morality lacks any fixed, ultimate goal. Indeed, morality as a natural phenomenon has been used by groups to obtain a range of goals such as reproductive fitness and increased material goods – as well as increased well-being.
This contradicts Sam Harris’ claim that, as a matter of science, the goal of moral behavior is fixed as well-being.
There is plentiful evidence in science for the claim that morality, as a natural phenomenon, has no fixed ultimate goal. No equivalent evidence exists in science for Harris’ claim: Harris cannot coherently claim that the goal of a natural phenomenon “ought” to be something different than it “is” without agreeing that the hybrid product is no longer a purely natural phenomenon. This moves his contention beyond the domain of science.
And then, Sloan wanders off into the same swamp as Price and Tanaka. He is no more able than them to resist the power of the illusion. For him, as for the other two, the Good exists. Without even bothering to provide a basis for the claim that his version of the Good actually exists (and his version just happens to agree with the version currently favored in academia, wink, wink, nod, nod), he simply throws it out there, and sagely explains to Sam that either science is the wrong tool, or his version of science is too crude a tool, to approach it. It’s really hard to tell which one, because at this point Sloan’s essay becomes completely incoherent. Sloan associates his version of the Good, which is presumably floating out there in the luminiferous ether with an independent life of its own, like those of Tanaka and Price, with “altruistic cooperation strategy”:
What can the science of morality tell us about right and wrong moral norms? Using morality as a natural phenomenon as its criterion, science can tell us if the moral norm actually is an altruistic cooperation strategy and therefore moral in this sense.
and if something is “moral in this sense,” it turns out to be really Good! Sloan doesn’t leave us hanging on this point. He spells it out for us:
Consider the norms: “Homosexuality is evil,” and “women must be subservient to men.” These both have the necessary “violators deserve punishment” part and altruistic parts of all altruistic cooperation strategies as described above. However, are they really altruistic cooperation strategies? They appear to be if you look no further than the in-groups that may altruistically cooperate to impose them and benefit. But how do they measure up regarding altruistic cooperation between the in-group and the out-group? They reduce altruistic cooperation because the out-group generally cannot equally punish the in-group; consequently, the out-group is exploited. So these two norms (like all norms allowing exploitation) are immoral by this universal moral standard.
Indeed, it turns out that Sloan is in possession of some kind of an absolute standard for deciding what is “shameful,” as he continues,
Could acknowledgement of the two norms’ shameful origins in exploitation and that they are immoral by this universal moral standard change the mind of a religious person? I expect a religious person would be more likely to reinterpret Holy Scriptures – motivated by these science of morality insights, rather than being motivated by simply being told “Science shows the ultimate goal of morality is well-being.” Let’s do all we can to make the science of morality useful to religious people; some need a lot of help.
And so, this “universal moral standard” certainly exists. Like the other two, Sloan is just quibbling about the best way to realize it. Chalk up number three for Harris.
It is with a heavy heart that I turn to Haidt. I have admired his books and papers. He really seems to “get it.” At least he doesn’t fall into the same slough as the others by actually agreeing with Harris about the existence of the Good, and merely quibbling about how to get there. Haidt is someone who, by all appearances, should be able to debunk Harris’ “scientific morality” in a few sentences, and yet, somehow, he can’t seem to cut to the chase. Instead, he comes down with a severe case of philosophical flatulence before our eyes.
In his essay, Why I think Sam Harris is wrong about morality, Haidt comes up with two objections to Harris’ claim. The first is that “well-being” can’t be measured in “an objective way that is similar to measurements in the natural sciences.” This is really just arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. All Harris has to do is marshal his gazillions of counter-arguments that well-being can, in fact, be measured scientifically, and we are right back where we started from. Haidt introduces his next objection by trotting out two completely unnecessary bits of philosophical jargon, succeeding thereby in throwing a smoke screen over the rest of the objection. He uses one of the terms in the title of the objection itself: The claim that moral facts are non-anthropocentric facts. To avoid confusing the reader any more than necessary, I will let Haidt speak for himself:
The philosopher David Wiggins (1987) distinguishes between “Non-anthropocentric” and “anthropocentric” facts. (This is similar to Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities). Facts of chemistry, physics, and other hard sciences are non-anthropocentric. They do not depend on any aspect of human nature. If intelligent aliens had come to visit the earth long before humans appeared, they would have found that the earth is the third planet from the sun, and that copper is a better conductor of electricity than is aluminum.
Anthropocentric facts, in contrast, are only true given the kinds of creatures that we happen to be, due to the twists and turns of our evolutionary history. Examples include the facts that sugar is sweeter than ascorbic acid, and that extended solitary confinement is painful. Those are not just my personal opinions; they are facts about sugar and isolation.
Harris is asserting that correct moral claims are non-anthropocentric facts. He is asserting that if intelligent aliens came to Earth today, they could in principle judge the moral worth of human societies, as long as they learned about human brains and could take accurate measures of well-being.
But moral facts are anthropocentric facts. If intelligent aliens came to visit, we can have no confidence that they would reach the same moral conclusions that Harris reaches, based on his utilitarian ethos.
All I can say to Haidt is, “Lose the ‘anthropocentric’ and ‘non-anthropocentric,’ already!” It’s just not that complicated! The illusion of the Good increased the probability that our genes would survive and reproduce. It exists only for that reason. There is no way that it can somehow shed its evolutionary strings and become a real thing. The answer Harris is looking for, but will certainly fail to see, is really just as simple as that.
Apparently Harris received hundreds of essays in response to his challenge. Forgive me if I don’t read any more of them.