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  • Relics of the Blank Slate, as Excavated at “Ethics” Magazine

    Posted on October 4th, 2015 Helian No comments

    There’s a reason that the Blank Slaters clung so bitterly to their absurd orthodoxy for so many years.  If there is such a thing as human nature, then all the grandiose utopias they concocted for us over the years, from Communism on down, would vanish like so many mirages.  That orthodoxy collapsed when a man named Robert Ardrey made a laughing stock of the “men of science.”  In this enlightened age, one seldom finds an old school, hard core Blank Slater outside of the darkest, most obscure rat holes of academia.  Even PBS and Scientific American have thrown in the towel.  Still, one occasionally runs across “makeovers” of the old orthodoxy, in the guise of what one might call Blank Slate Lite.

    I recently discovered just such an artifact in the pages of Ethics magazine, which functions after a fashion as an asylum for “experts in ethics” who still cling to the illusion that they have anything relevant to say.  Entitled The Limits of Evolutionary Explanations of Morality and Their Implications for Moral Progress, it was written by Prof. Allen Buchanan of Duke and Kings College, London, and Asst. Prof. Russell Powell of Boston University.  Unfortunately, it’s behind a pay wall, and is quite long, but if you’re the adventurous type you might be able to access it at a local university library.  In any case, the short version of the paper might be summarized as follows:

    Conservatives have traditionally claimed that “human nature places severe limitations on social and moral reform,” but have “offered little in the way of scientific evidence to support this claim.”  Now, however, a later breed of conservatives, knows as “evoconservatives,” have “attempted to fill this empirical gap in the conservative argument by appealing to the prevailing evolutionary explanation of morality to show that it is unrealistic to think that cosmopolitan and other “inclusivist” moral ideals can meaningfully be realized.”  However, while evolved psychology can’t be discounted in moral theory, and there is such a thing as human nature, they are so plastic and malleable that it doesn’t stand in the way of moral progress.

    This, at least, is the argument until one gets to the “Conclusion” section at the end.  Then, as if frightened by their own hubris, the authors make noises in a quite contradictory direction, writing, for example,

    …we acknowledge that evolved psychological capacities, interacting with particular social and institutional environments, can pose serious obstacles to using our rationality in ways that result in more inclusive moralities. For example, environments that mirror conditions of the EEA (environment of evolutionary adaptation, i.e., the environment in which moral behavioral predispositions presumably evolved, ed.)—such as those characterized by great physical insecurity, high parasite threat, severe intergroup competition for resources, and a lack of institutions for peaceful, mutually beneficial cooperation—will tend to be very unfriendly to the development of inclusivist morality.

    However, they conclude triumphantly with the following:

    At the same time, however, we have offered compelling reasons, both theoretical and empirical, to believe that human morality is only weakly constrained by human evolutionary history, leaving the potential for substantial moral progress wide open. Our point is not that human beings have slipped the “leash” of evolution, but rather that the leash is far longer than evoconservatives and even many evolutionary psychologists have acknowledged—and no one is in a position at present to know just how elastic it will turn out to be.

    Students of the Blank Slate orthodoxy will see that all the main shibboleths are still there, if in somewhat attenuated form.  The Blank Slate itself is replaced by a “long leash.”  The “genetic determinist” strawman of the Blank Slaters is replaced by “evoconservatives.”  These evoconservatives are no longer “fascists and racists,” but merely a nuisance standing in the way of “moral progress.”  The overriding goal is no longer anything like the Marxist paradise on earth, but the somewhat less inspiring continued “development of inclusivist morality.”

    Readers of this blog should immediately notice the unwarranted assumption that there actually is such a thing as “moral progress.”  In that case, there must be a goal towards which morality is progressing.  Natural selection occurs without any such goal or purpose.  It follows that the authors believe that there must be some “mysterious, transcendental” origin other than natural evolution to account for this progress.  However, they insist they don’t believe in such a “mysterious, transcendental” source.  How, then, do they account for the existence of this “thing” they refer to as “moral progress?”  What the authors are really referring to when they refer to this “moral progress” is “the way we and other good liberals want things.”

    By “inclusivist” moralities, the authors mean versions that can be expanded to include very large subsets of the human population that are neither kin to the bearers of that morality nor members of any identifiable group that is likely to reciprocate their good deeds.  Presumably the ultimate goal is to expand these subsets to “include” all mankind.  The “evoconservatives” we are told, deny the possibility of such “inclusivism” in spite of the fact that one can cite many obvious examples to the contrary.  At this point, one begins to wonder who these obtuse evoconservatives really are.  The authors are quite coy about identifying them.  The footnote following their first mention merely points to a blurb about what the authors will discuss later in the text.  No names are named.  Much later in the text Jonathan Haidt is finally identified as one of the evoconservatives.  As the authors put it,

    Leading psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who has stressed the moral psychological significance of in-group loyalty, expresses a related view: ‘It would be nice to believe that we humans were designed to love everyone unconditionally. Nice, but rather unlikely from an evolutionary perspective. Parochial love—love within groups—amplified by similarity, a sense of shared fate, and the suppression of free riders, may be the most we can accomplish.

    In fact, as anyone who has actually read Haidt is aware, he neither believes that “inclusivist” moralities as defined by the authors are impossible, nor does this quote imply anything of the sort.  A genuine conservative would doubtless classify Haidt as a liberal, but he has defended, or at least tried to explain, conservative moralities.  Apparently that is sufficient to cast him into the outer darkness as an “evoconservative.”

    The authors also point the finger at Larry Arnhart.  Arnhart is neither a geneticist, nor an evolutionary biologist, nor an evolutionary psychologist, but a political scientist who apparently subscribes to some version of the naturalistic fallacy.  Nowhere is it demonstrated that he actually believes that the inclusivist versions of morality favored by the authors are impossible.  In a word, the few slim references to individuals who are supposed to fit the description of the evoconservative strawman concocted by the authors actually do nothing of the sort.  Yet in spite of the fact that the authors can’t actually name anyone who explicitly embraces their version of evoconservatism, they describe the existence of “inclusivist morality” as a “major flaw in evoconservative arguments.”

    A bit later, the authors appear to drop their evoconservative strawman, and expand their field of fire to include anyone who claims that “inclusivist morality” could have resulted from natural selection.  For example, quoting from the article:

    The key point is that none of these inclusivist features of contemporary morality are plausibly explained in standard selectionist terms, that is, as adaptations or predictable expressions of adaptive features that arose in the environment of evolutionary adaptation (EEA).

    Here, “evoconservatives” have been replaced by “standard selectionists.”  Invariably, the authors walk back such seemingly undistilled statements of Blank Slate ideology with assurances that no one believes more firmly than they in the evolutionary roots of morality.  That, of course, begs the question of how “these inclusivist features,” if they are not explainable in “standard selectionist terms,” are plausibly explained in “non-standard selectionist terms,” and who these “non-standard selectionists” actually are.  Apparently the only alternative is that the “inclusivist features” have a “transcendental” explanation, not further elaborated by the authors.  This conclusion is not as far fetched as it seems.  Interestingly enough, the authors’ work is partially funded by the Templeton Foundation, an accommodationist outfit with the ostensible goal of proving that religion and science are not mutually exclusive.

    In fact, I know of not a single scientist whose specialty is germane to the subject of human morality who would dispute the existence of inclusive moralities.  The authors limit themselves to statements to the effect that the work of such and such a person “suggests” that they don’t believe in inclusive moralities, or that the work of some other person “implies” that they don’t believe such moralities are stable.  Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to simply go and ask these people what they actually believe regarding these matters, instead of putting words in their mouths?

    Left out of all these glowing descriptions of inclusive moralities is the fact that not a single one of them exists without an outgroup.  That fact is demonstrated by the authors themselves, whose outgroup obviously includes those they identify as “evoconservatives.”  One might also point out that those who have “inclusive” ingroups commonly have “inclusive” outgroups as well, and liberals are commonly found among the most violent outgroup haters on the planet.  To confirm this, one need only look at the comments at the websites of Daily Kos, or Talking Points Memo, or the Nation, or any other familiar liberal watering hole.

    While I’m somewhat dubious about all the authors’ loose talk about “moral progress,” I think we can at least identify some real progress towards getting at the truth in their version of Blank Slate Lite.  After all, it’s a far cry from the old school version.  Throughout the article the authors question the ability of natural selection in the environment in which moral behavior presumably evolved in early humans to account for this or that feature of their observed “inclusive morality.”  As noted above, however, as often as they do it, they are effusive in assuring the reader that by no means do they wish to imply that they find any fault whatsoever with innate theories of human morality.  In the end, what more can one ask than the ability to continue seeking the truth about human moral behavior in every relevant area of science without fear of being denounced and intimidated as guilty of one type of villainy or another.  That ability seems more assured if the existence of innate behavior is at least admitted, and is therefore unlikely to be criminalized as it was in the heyday of the Blank Slate.  In that respect, Blank Slate Lite really does represent progress.

    Of course, there remains the question of why so many of us still take seriously the authors’ fantasies about “moral progress” more than a century after Westermarck pointed out the absurdity of truth claims about morality.  I suspect the answer lies in the fact that ending the charade would reduce all the pontifications of all the “experts in morality” catered to by learned journals like Ethics to gibberish.  Experts don’t like to be confronted with the truth that their painstakingly acquired expertise is irrelevant.  Admitting it would make it a great deal harder to secure grants from the Templeton Foundation.

    UPDATE:  I failed to mention another intriguing paragraph in the paper that reads as follows:

    The human capacity to reflect on and revise our conceptions of duty and moral standing can give us reasons here and now to expand our capacities for moral behavior by developing institutions that economize on sympathy and enhance our ability to take the interests of strangers into account. This same capacity may also give us reasons, in the not-too-distant future, to modify our evolved psychology through the employment of biomedical interventions that enable us to implement new norms that we develop as a result of the process of reflection. In both cases, the limits of our evolved motivational capacities do not translate into a comparable constraint on our capacity for moral action. The fact that we are not currently motivationally capable of acting on the considered moral norms we have come to endorse is not a reason to trim back those norms; it is a reason to enhance our motivational capacity, either through institutional or biomedical means, so that it matches the demands of our considered morality.

    Note the bolded wording.  I’m not sure what to make of it, dear reader, but it appears that, one way or another, the authors intend to “get our minds right.”

  • The Great European Morality Inversion

    Posted on October 2nd, 2015 Helian 5 comments

    If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know my take on morality.  It is the manifestation of a subset of our suite of innate behavioral traits.  The traits in question exist because they evolved.  Absent those traits, morality as we know it would not exist.  It follows that attempts to apply moral emotions in order to solve complex problems that arise in an environment that is radically different from the one in which the innate, “root causes” of morality evolved are irrational.  That, however, is precisely how the Europeans are attempting to deal with an unprecedented flood of culturally and genetically alien refugees.  The result is predictable – a classic morality inversion.

    The situation is unfolding just as Jonathan Haidt described it in his paper, The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail.  As he put it,

    …moral reasoning does not cause moral judgment; rather, moral reasoning is usually a post hoc construction, generated after a judgment has been reached.

    In other words, the “emotional dog” makes the judgment.  Only after the judgment has been made does the “rational tail” begin “wagging the dog,” concocting good sounding “reasons” for the judgment.  One can get a better idea of what’s really going on by tracking down the source of the moral emotions involved.

    Let’s consider, then, what’s going on inside the “pro-refugee” brain.  As in every other brain, the moral machinery distinguishes between ingroup and outgroup(s).  In this case these categories are perceived primarily in ideological terms.  The typical pro-refugee individual is often a liberal, as that rather slippery term is generally understood in the context of 21st century western democracies.  Such specimens will occasionally claim that they have expanded their ingroup to include “all mankind,” so that it is no longer possible for them to be “haters.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The outgroup have ye always with you.  It comes with the human behavioral package.

    If anything, the modern liberal hates more violently than any other subgroup.  He commonly hates the people within his own culture who disagree with the shibboleths of his ideology.  Those particular “others,” almost always constitute at least a part of his outgroup.  Outside of his own culture, ideology matters much less as a criterion of outgroup identification, as demonstrated, for example, by the odd affinity between many Western liberals and radical Islamists.

    Beyond that, however, he is hardly immune from the more traditional forms of tribalism.  For example, European liberals typically hate the United States.  The intensity of that hatred tends to rise and fall over time, but can sometimes reach almost incredible levels.  The most recent eruption occurred around the year 2000.  Interestingly enough, one of the most spectacular examples occurred in Germany, the very country that now takes the cake for moralistic grandstanding in the matter of refugees.  Der Spiegel, its number one news magazine, was certainly in the avant-garde of the orgasm of hatred.  It was often difficult to find any news about Germany on the homepage of its website, so filled was it with furious, spittle-flinging rants about the imagined evils of “die Amerikaner.”  However, virtually every other major German “news” outlet, whether it was nominally “liberal” or “conservative,” eventually jointed the howling pack.  The most vicious examples of anti-American hate were typically found in just those publications that are now quick to denounce German citizens who express concern about the overwhelming waves of refugees now pouring into the country as “haters.”

    On the other hand, refugees, or at least those of the type now pouring into Europe, seldom turn up in any of these common outgroups of the modern liberal.  They land squarely in his ingroup.  Humans are generally inclined to help ingroup members who, like the refugees, appear to be in trouble.  This is doubly true of the liberal, who piques himself on what he imagines to be his moral superiority.  Furthermore, as the refugees can be portrayed as victims of colonialism and imperialism, one might say they are a “most favored subset” of the ingroup.  Throw in a few pictures of drowned children, impoverished women begging for help, etc., and all the moral ingredients are there to render the liberal an impassioned defender of the masses of humanity drawing a bead on his country.  Nothing gives him more self-righteous joy than imagining himself a “savior.”  This explains the fact that liberals are eternally in the process of “saving” one group of unfortunates or another without ever getting around to accomplishing anything actually recognizable as salvation.  All the pleasure is in the charade.  We find the same phenomenon whether its a matter of “saving” the environment, “saving” the planet from global warming, or “saving” the poor.  For the liberal, the pose is everything, and the reality nothing.

    Which brings us back to the theme of this post.  All the sublime moral emotions now at play in the “salvation” of the refugees have an uncanny resemblance to many other instances of moral behavior as practiced by the modern liberal.  They have a tendency to favor an outcome which is the opposite of what the same moral emotions accomplished at an earlier time, and that led to their preservation by natural selection to begin with.  In a word, as noted above, we are witnessing yet another classic morality inversion.

    Why an inversion?  At the most fundamental level, because it will lead to the diminution or elimination of the genes whose survival a similar response once favored.  At the moment, the pro-refugee side is calling the shots.  It controls the governments of all the major European states.  All of them more or less fit the pattern described above, whether they are nominally “liberal” or “conservative.”  Indeed, foremost among them is Germany’s “conservative’ regime, which has positively invited a flood of alien refugees across its borders.  Based on historical precedent, the outcome of all this altruism isn’t difficult to foresee.  In terms of “culture” it will be a future of ethnic and religious strife, possibly leading to civil war.  Genetically, it amounts to an attempt at ethnic suicide.  I am well aware that these outcomes are disputed by those promoting the refugee inundation.  However, I consider it pointless to argue about it.  I am content to let history judge.

    While we bide our time waiting for the train wreck to unfold, it may be of interest to examine some of the techniques being used to maintain this remarkable instance of moralistic play-acting.  I take most of my examples from the German media, which includes some of the most avid refugee cheerleaders.  Predictably, outgroup vilification is part of the mix.  As noted above, anyone who objects to the flood of refugees is almost universally denounced as a “hater” by just those people who wear their own virulent hatreds on their sleeves while pretending they don’t exist.  Of course, there are also the usual hackneyed violations of Godwin’s Law.  For example, Jacob Augstein, leftwing stalwart for Der Spiegel, denounces them as “Browns” (i.e., brownshirts, Nazis) in a recent column.  On the “positive” side, the “conservative” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung optimistically suggests that the refugees will promote economic growth.  According to another article in Der Spiegel, the eastern Europeans, who are not quite so refugee-friendly as the Germans, are “blowing their chance.”  The ominous byline reads,

    Europe is shrinking.  The demographic downtrend is particularly dramatic in the eastern part of the continent, where the population is literally dying out.  In spite of that, Hungary, Poland and company are resisting immigration.  They will regret it.

    In other words, before turning out the lights and committing suicide, the eastern Europeans should make sure an alien culture is in place to take over their territories when they’re gone.  Of course, this flies in the face of the impassioned rhetoric the liberals have been feeding us about the need to reduce the surface population if we are to have an environmentally sustainable planet.

    I note in passing that the European elites that are driving this process now seem to have taken a step back from the brink.  They are having second thoughts.  They realize that they don’t have their populations behind them, and that their defiance of popular opinion might eventually threaten their own power.  As a result, the number of news articles about the refugees and their plight is only a shadow of what it was only a few weeks ago.  Mild reservations about refugee wowserism are starting to appear even in such gung-ho forums as Der Spiegel where, as I write this, the lead article on their homepage is entitled “Now Things Are Getting Uncomfortable.”  Ya think!?  The byline reads,

    There is a chance in tone in the refugee crisis.  SPD (German Social Democratic Party) chief Gabriel warms about limits to Germany’s ability to absorb refugees.  Minister of the Interior de Maziere deplores the misbehavior of many migrants.  The pressure on Chancellor Merkel is increasing.

    “Ought” the Europeans to alter their behavior?  Is what they consider “good” really “evil?”  Are they ignoring the real “goal” of natural selection?  Certainly not, at least from an objective point of view.  There is no objective criterion for determining what anyone “ought” to do, anymore than there is an objective way to distinguish the difference between things, such as good and evil, that have no objective existence.  They are hardly failing to move towards the “goal” of natural selection, since that process does not have either a purpose or a goal.  As you may have gathered, my own subjective whim is to oppose unlimited immigration.  I have, however, not the slightest basis for declaring that anyone who doesn’t agree with me is “evil.”  At best, I can try to explain my own whims.

    I’m what you might call a moral compatibilist.  I see myself sitting at the end of a chain of life spawned by genetic material that has evolved over a period of more than three billions years, surviving and reproducing over that incredible gulf of time via an almost infinite array of successive forms, culminating in the species to which I now belong.  I consider the whole process, and the universe I live in, awesome and wonderful.  Subjectively, it seems to me “good” to act in a way that is compatible with the natural processes that have given me life.  It follows that, from my own, individual, subjective point of view, I “should” seek to preserve that life and pass it on into the indefinite future.

    I have not the slightest basis for claiming that “my way” is better than the whimsical behavior of those I see around me exultantly pursuing their morality inversions.  At best, I must limit myself to observing that “my way” seems more consistent.

  • Richard Dawkins and the Chimera of “Moral Duty”

    Posted on September 10th, 2015 Helian 18 comments

    Apparently militant New Atheist Richard Dawkins believes there is such a thing as “moral duty.”  In a recent tweet he wrote, citing an article in the Washington Post,

    US has as much moral duty to accept Syrian refugees as Europe. If not more.

    It’s too bad Socrates isn’t still around to “learn” the nature of this “moral duty” from Dawkins the same way he did from Euthyphro.  I’m sure the resulting dialog would have been most amusing.

    Where on earth does an atheist like Dawkins get the idea that there is such a thing as moral duty?  I doubt that he has even thought about it.  After all, if moral duty is not just a subjective figment of his imagination and is capable of acquiring the legitimacy to apply not only to himself, but to the entire population of the United States as well, it must somehow exist as an entity in itself.  How else could it acquire that legitimacy?  There is no logical justification for the claim that mere subjective artifacts of the consciousness of Richard Dawkins, or any other human individual for that matter, are born automatically equipped with the right to dictate “oughts” to other individuals.  They cannot possibly acquire the necessary legitimacy simply by virtue of the fact that the physical processes in the brain responsible for their existence have occurred.  In what form, then, does “moral duty” exist as an independent thing-in-itself?  To claim that “moral duty” is not a thing, or an object, is tantamount to admitting that it doesn’t exist.  In what other form can it possibly manifest itself?  As a spirit?  If that is Dawkins’ claim, then he is every bit as religious as the most delusional speaker in tongues.  As dark matter, perhaps?  If so then Dawkins must know more about it then the world’s best physicists.

    We’re not talking about a deep philosophical issue here.  I really can’t understand why the question doesn’t occur immediately to anyone who claims to be an atheist.  (Of course, it should occur to religious believers as well, as noted by Socrates well over 2000 years ago.  However, the response that they have a “moral duty” because they don’t want to burn in hell for quintillions of years is at least worth considering).  In any case, the question certainly occurred to me shortly after I became an atheist at the age of 12.  Then, as now, the world was infested with are commonly referred to today as Social Justice Warriors.  Then, as now, they were in a constant state of outrage over one thing or another.  And then, as now, they expected the rest of the world to take their tantrums of virtuous indignation seriously.  Is it really irrational to pose the simple question, “Why?”  I asked myself that question, and quickly came to the conclusion that these people are charlatans.

    The question remains and is just as relevant today as it was then, whether one accepts Darwinian explanations for the origin of morality or not.  However, for atheists who have some respect for the methods of science, I would claim that natural selection is at once the most logical as well as the most parsimonious explanation for the existence of morality.  It is the root cause from which spring all its gaudy and multifarious guises.  If that is the case, then one can only speak of morality in scientific terms as a manifestation of evolved behavioral predispositions.  As such, there is no possible way for it to acquire objective legitimacy.  In other words, the claim that all Americans, or any other subset of the human population, has a genuine “moral duty” of any kind is a mirage.  If anything, this would appear to be doubly true in the case claimed by Dawkins.  It is yet another instance of what I have previously referred to as a “morality inversion.”  “Morality” is invoked as the reason for doing things that accomplish the opposite of that which accounts for the very existence of morality to begin with.

    What?  You don’t agree with me?  Well, if “moral duties” are not made of anything, then they don’t exist, so they must be objects of some kind.  They must be made of something.  By all means, go out and capture a free range “moral duty,” and prove me wrong.  Show it to me!  I hope it’s green.  That’s my favorite color.

  • Steven Pinker on “The moral imperative for bioethics”

    Posted on August 9th, 2015 Helian 2 comments

    According to Steven Pinker in The moral imperative for bioethics, an opinion piece he recently wrote for the Boston Globe,

    …the primary moral goal for today’s bioethics can be summarized in a single sentence.  Get out of the way.

    I would strengthen that a bit to something like, “Stop the mental masturbation and climb back into the real world.”  At some level Pinker is aware of the fact that bioethicists and other “experts” in morality are not nearly as useful to the rest of us as they think they are.  He just doesn’t understand why.  As a result he makes the mistake of conceding the objective relevance of morality in solving problems germane to the field of biotechnology.  The fundamental problem is that these people are chasing after imaginary objects, things that aren’t real.  They have bamboozled the rest of us into taking them seriously because we have been hoodwinked by our emotional baggage just as effectively as they have.  There is no premium on reality as far as evolution is concerned.  There is a premium on survival.  We perceive “good” and “evil” as real objects, not because they actually are real objects, but because our ancestors were more likely to pass on the relevant genes if they perceived these fantasies as real things.  Bioethics is just one of the many artifacts of this delusion.

    Consider what the bioethicists are really claiming.  They are saying that mental impressions that exist because they happened to improve the evolutionary fitness of a species of advanced, highly social, bipedal apes correspond to real things, commonly referred to as “good” and “evil,” that have some kind of an objective existence independent of the minds of those creatures.  Not only that, but if one can but capture these objects, which happen to be extremely elusive and slippery, one can apply them to make decisions in the field of biotechnology, which didn’t exist when the mental equipment that gives rise to the impressions in question evolved.  Consider these extracts from the online conversation:

    Carl Elliot, at his blog, Fear and Loathing in Bioethics,

    Forget Tuskegee. Forget Willowbrook and Holmesburg Prison. Pay no attention to the research subjects who died at Kano, Auckland Women’s Hospital or the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. Never mind about Jesse Gelsinger, Ellen Roche, Nicole Wan, Tracy Johnson or Dan Markingson. According to Steven Pinker, “we already have ample safeguards for the safety and informed consent of patients and research subjects.”  So bioethicists should just shut up about abuses and let smart people like him get on with their work.

    Pinker:

    Indeed, biotechnology has moral implications that are nothing short of stupendous. But they are not the ones that worry the worriers.

    Julian Savulescu at the Practical Ethics website:

    What we need is less obstruction of good and ethical research, as Pinker correctly observes, and more vigilance at picking up unethical research. This requires competent, professional and trained bioethicists and improvement of ethics review processes.

    Daniel K. Sokol, also at Practical Ethics:

    The idea that research that has the potential to cause harm should be subject to ethical review should not be controversial in the 21st century. The words “this project has been reviewed and approved by the Research Ethics Committee” offers some reassurance that the welfare of participants has been duly considered. The thought of biomedical research without ethical review is a frightening one.

    Pinker:

    A truly ethical bioethics should not bog down research in red tape, moratoria, or threats of prosecution based on nebulous but sweeping principles such as “dignity,” “sacredness,” or “social justice.”

    One imagines oneself in Bedlam.  These people are all trying to address what most people would agree is a real problem.  They understand that most people don’t want to be victims of anything like the Tuskegee experiments.  They also grasp the fact that most people would prefer to live longer, healthier lives.  True, these, too, are merely subjective goals, whims if you will, but they are whims that most of us will agree with.  The whims aren’t the problem.  The problem is that we are trying to apply a useless tool to reach the goals; human moral emotions.  We are trying to establish truths by consulting emotions to which no truth claims can possibly apply.  Stuart Rennie got it right in spite of himself in his attack on Pinker at his Global Bioethics Blog:

    My first reaction was: how is this new bioethics skill taught? Should there be classes that teach it in a stepwise manner, i.e. where you first learn not to butt in, then how to just step a bit aside, followed by somewhat getting out of the way, and culminating in totally screwing off? What would the syllabus look like? Wouldn’t avoiding bioethics class altogether be a sign of success?

    Pinker, too, iterates to an entirely rational final sentence in his opinion piece:

    Biomedical research will always be closer to Sisyphus than a runaway train — and the last thing we need is a lobby of so-called ethicists helping to push the rock down the hill.

    I, too, would prefer not to be a Tuskegee guinea pig.  I, too, would like to live longer and be healthier.  I simply believe that emotional predispositions that exist because they happen to have been successful in regulating the social interactions within and among small groups of hunter-gatherers millennia ago, are unlikely to be the best tools to achieve those ends.

    bedlam

  • Morality Inversions

    Posted on August 8th, 2015 Helian No comments

    The nature of morality and the reason for its existence have been obvious for more than a century and a half.  Francis Hutcheson demonstrated that it must arise from a “moral sense” early in the 18th century.  Hume agreed, and suggested the possibility that there may be a secular explanation for the existence of this moral sense.  Darwin demonstrated the nature of this secular explanation for anyone willing to peak over the blindfold of faith and look at the evidence.  Westermarck climbed up on the shoulders of these giants, gazed about, and summarized the obvious in his brilliant The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas.  In short, good and evil have no objective existence.  They are subjective artifacts of behavioral predispositions that exist because they evolved.  Absent that evolved “moral sense,” morality as we know it would not exist.  It evolved because it happened to increase the probability that the genes responsible for its existence would survive and reproduce.  There exists no mechanism whereby those genes can jump out of the DNA of one individual, grab the DNA of another individual by the scruff of the neck, and dictate what kind of behavior that other DNA should regard as “good” or “evil.”

    In the years since Darwin and Westermarck our species has amply demonstrated its propensity to ignore such inconvenient truths.  Once upon a time religion provided some semblance of a justification for belief in an objective “good-in-itself.”  However, latter day “experts” on ethics and morality have jettisoned such anachronisms, effectively sawing off the branch they were sitting on.  Then, with incomparable hubris, they’ve claimed a magical ability to distill objective “goods” and “evils” straight out of the vacuum they were floating in.  In our own time the result is visible as a veritable explosion of abstruse algorithms, incomprehensible to all but a few academic scribblers, for doing just that.  Encouraged by these “experts,” legions of others have indulged themselves in the wonderfully sweet delusion that the particular haphazard grab bag of emotions they happened to inherit from their ancestors provided them with an infallible touchstone for sniffing out “real good” and “real evil.”  The result has been an orgy of secular piety that the religious Puritans of old would have shuddered to behold.

    The manifestations of this latter day piety have been bizarre, to say the least.  Instead of promoting genetic survival, they accomplish precisely the opposite.  Genes that are the end result of an unbroken chain of existence stretching back billions of years into the past now seem intent on committing suicide.  It’s not surprising really.  Other genes gave rise to an intelligence capable of altering the environment so fast that the rest couldn’t possibly keep up.  The result is visible in various forms of self-destructive behavior that can be described as “morality inversions.”

    A classic example is the belief that it is “immoral” to have children.  Reams of essays, articles, and even books have been written “proving” that, for various reasons, reproduction is “bad-in-itself.”  If one searches diligently for the “root cause” of all these counterintuitive artifacts of human nature, one will always find them resting on a soft bed of moral emotions.  What physical processes in the brain give rise to these moral emotions, and how, exactly, do they predispose us to act in some ways, but not others?  No one knows.  It’s a mystery that will probably remain unsolved until we unravel the secret of consciousness.  One thing we do know, however.  The emotions exist because they evolved, and they evolved because they enhanced the odds that the genes that gave rise to them would reproduce; or at least they did in a particular environment that no longer exists.  In the vastly different environment we have now created for ourselves, however, they are obviously capable of promoting an entirely different end, at least in some cases; self destruction.

    Of course, self destruction is not objectively evil because nothing is objectively evil.  Neither is it unreasonable, because, as Hume pointed out, reason by itself cannot motivate us to do anything.  We are motivated by “sentiments” or “passions” that we experience because it is our nature to experience them.  These include the moral passions.  Self destruction is a whim, and reason can be applied to satisfy the whim.  I happen to have a different whim.  I see myself as a link in a vast chain of millions of living organisms, my ancestors, if you will.  All have successfully reproduced, adding another link to the chain.  Suppose I were to fail to reproduce, thus becoming the final link in the chain and announcing, in effect, to those who came before me and made my life possible that, thanks to me, all their efforts had ended in a biological dead end.  In that case I would see myself as a dysfunctional biological unit or, in a word, sick, the victim of a morality inversion.  It follows that I have a different whim; to reproduce.  And so I have.  There can be nothing that renders my whims in any way objectively superior to those of anyone else.  I merely describe them and outline what motivates them.  I’m not disturbed by the fact that others have different whims, and choose self destruction.  After all, their choice to remove themselves from the gene pool and stop taking up space on the planet may well be to my advantage.

    Another interesting example of a morality inversion is the deep emotional high so many people in Europe and North America seem to get from inviting a deluge of genetically and culturally alien immigrants to ignore the laws of their countries and move in.  One can but speculate on the reasons that the moral emotions, mediated by culture as they always are, result in such counterintuitive behavior.  There is, of course, such a thing as human altruism, and it exists because it evolved.  However, that evolutionary process took place in an environment that made it likely that such behavior would enhance the chances that the responsible genes would survive.  People lived in relatively small ingroups surrounded by more or less hostile outgroups.  We still categorize others into ingroups and outgroups, but the process has become deranged.  Thanks to our vastly expanded knowledge of the world around us combined with vastly improved means of communication, the ingroup may now be perceived as “all mankind.”

    Except, of course, for the ever present outgroup.  The outgroup hasn’t gone anywhere.  It has merely adopted a different form.  Now, instead of the clan in the next territory over, the outgroup may consist of liberals, conservatives, Christians, Moslems, atheists, Jews, blacks, whites, or what have you.  The many possibilities are familiar to anyone who has read a little history.  Obviously, the moral equipment in our brains doesn’t have the least trouble identifying the population of Africa, the Middle East, or Mexico as members of the ingroup, and citizens of one’s own country who don’t quite see them in that light as the outgroup.  In that case, anyone who resists a deluge of illegal immigrants is “evil.”  If they point out that similar events in the past have led to long periods of ethnic and/or religious strife, occasionally culminating in civil war, or any of the other obvious drawbacks of uncontrolled immigration, they are simply shouted down with the epithets appropriate for describing the outgroup, “racist” being the most familiar and hackneyed example.  In short, a morality inversion has occurred.  Moral emotions have become dysfunctional, promoting behavior that will almost certainly be self-destructive in the long run.  I may be wrong of course.  The immigrants now pouring into Europe and North America without apparent limit may all eventually be assimilated into a big, happy, prosperous family.  I seriously doubt it.  Wait and see.

    One could cite many other examples.  The faithful, of course, have their own versions, such as removing themselves from the gene pool by acting as human bombs, often taking many others with them in the process.  The “good” in this case is the delusional prospect of enjoying the services of 70 of the best Stepford wives ever heard of in the afterlife.  Regardless, the point is that the evolved emotional baggage that manifests itself in so many forms as human morality has been left in the dust.  It cannot possibly keep up with the frenetic pace of human social and technological progress.  The result is morality inversions; behaviors that accomplish more or less the opposite of what they did in the environment in which they evolved.  Under the circumstances, the practice of allowing people to wallow in their moral emotions, insisting that they have a monopoly on the “good” and anyone who opposes them is “evil” is becoming increasingly problematic.  As noted above, I don’t have a problem with these people voluntarily removing themselves from the gene pool.  I do have a problem with becoming collateral damage.

  • “Ethics” in the 21st Century

    Posted on August 2nd, 2015 Helian 5 comments

    According to the banner on its cover, Ethics is currently “celebrating 125 years.”  It describes itself as “an international journal of social, political, and legal philosophy.”  Its contributors consist mainly of a gaggle of earnest academics, all chasing about with metaphysical butterfly nets seeking to capture that most elusive quarry, the “Good.”  None of them seems to have ever heard of a man named Westermarck, who demonstrated shortly after the journal first appeared that their prey was as imaginary as unicorns, or even Darwin, who was well aware of the fact, but was not indelicate enough to spell it out so blatantly.

    The latest issue includes an entry on the “Transmission Principle,” defined in its abstract as follows:

    If you ought to perform a certain act, and some other action is a necessary means for you to perform that act, then you ought to perform that other action as well.

    As usual, the author never explains how you get to the original “ought” to begin with.  In another article entitled “What If I Cannot Make a Difference (and Know It),” the author begins with a cultural artifact that will surely be of interest to future historians:

    We often collectively bring about bad outcomes.  For example, by continuing to buy cheap supermarket meat, many people together sustain factory farming, and the greenhouse gas emissions of millions of individuals together bring about anthropogenic climate change.

    and goes on to note that,

    Intuitively, these bad outcomes are not just a matter of bad luck, but the result of some sort of moral shortcoming.  Yet in many of these situations, none of the individual agents could have made any difference for the better.

    He then demonstrates that, because a equals b, and b equals c, we are still entirely justified in peering down our morally righteous noses at purchasers of cheap meat and emitters of greenhouse gases.  His conclusion in academic-speak:

    I have shown how Act Consequentialists can find fault with some agent in all cases where multiple agents who have modally robust knowledge of all the relevant facts gratuitously bring about collectively suboptimal outcomes, even if the agents individually cannot make any difference for the better due to the uncooperativeness of others.

    The author does not explain the process by which emotions that evolved in a world without cheap supermarket meat have lately acquired the power to prescribe whether buying it is righteous or not.

    It has been suggested by some that trading, the exchange of goods and services, is a defining feature of our species.  In an article entitled “Markets without Symbolic Limits,” the authors conclude that,

    In many cases, we are morally obligated to revise our semiotics in order to allow for greater commodification.  We ought to revise our interpretive schemas whenever the costs of holding that schema are significant, without counterweight benefits.  It is itself morally objectionable to maintain a meaning system that imbues a practice with negative meanings when that practice would save or improve lives, reduce or alleviate suffering, and so on.

    No doubt that very thought occurred to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, enhancing their overall fitness.  The happy result was the preservation of the emotional baggage that gave rise to it to later inform the pages of Ethics magazine.

    In short, “moral progress,” as reflected in the pages of Ethics, depends on studiously ignoring Darwin, averting our eyes from the profane scribblings of Westermarck, pretending that the recent flood of books and articles on the evolutionary origins of morality and the existence of analogs of human morality in many animals are irrelevant, and gratuitously assuming that there really is some “thing” out there for the butterfly nets to catch.  In other words, our “moral progress” has been a progress away from self-understanding.  It saddens me, because I’ve always considered self-understanding a “good.”  Just another one of my whims.

  • Of Tim Hunt and Elementary Morality

    Posted on June 21st, 2015 Helian 33 comments

    If we are evolved animals, then it is plausible that we have evolved behavioral traits, and among those traits are a “moral sense.”  So much was immediately obvious to Darwin himself.  To judge by the number of books that have been published about evolved morality in the last couple of decades, it makes sense to a lot of other people, too.  The reason such a sense might have evolved is obvious, especially among highly social creatures such as ourselves.  The tendency to act in some ways and not in others enhanced the probability that the genes responsible for those tendencies would survive and reproduce.  It is not implausible that this moral sense should be strong, and that it should give rise to such powerful impressions that some things are “really good,” and others are “really evil,” as to produce a sense that “good” and “evil” exist independently as objective things.  Such a moral sense is demonstrably very effective at modifying our behavior.  It hardly follows that good and evil really are independent, objective things.

    If an evolved moral sense really is the “root cause” for the existence of all the various and gaudy manifestations of human morality, is it plausible to believe that this moral sense has somehow tracked an “objective morality” that floats around out there independent of any subjective human consciousness?  No.  If it really is the root cause, is there some objective mechanism whereby the moral impressions of one human being can leap out of that individual’s skull and gain the normative power to dictate to another human being what is “really good” and “really evil?”  No.  Can there be any objective justification for outrage?  No.  Can there be any objective basis for virtuous indignation?  No.  So much is obvious.  Under the circumstances it’s amazing, even given the limitations of human reason, that so many of the most intelligent among it just don’t get it.  One can only attribute it to the tremendous power of the moral emotions, the great pleasure we get from indulging them, and the dominant role they play in regulating all human interactions.

    These facts were recently demonstrated by the interesting behavior of some of the more prominent intellectuals among us in reaction to some comments at a scientific conference.  In case you haven’t been following the story, the commenter in question was Tim Hunt,- a biochemist who won a Nobel Prize in 2001 with Paul Nurse and Leland H. Hartwell for discoveries of protein molecules that control the division (duplication) of cells.  At a luncheon during the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea, he averred that women are a problem in labs because “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry.”

    Hunt’s comment evoked furious moral emotions, not least among atheist intellectuals.  According to PZ Myers, proprietor of Pharyngula, Hunt’s comments revealed that he is “bad.”  Some of his posts on the subject may be found here, here, and here.  For example, according to Myers,

    Oh, no! There might be a “chilling effect” on the ability of coddled, privileged Nobel prize winners to say stupid, demeaning things about half the population of the planet! What will we do without the ability of Tim Hunt to freely accuse women of being emotional hysterics, or without James Watson’s proud ability to call all black people mentally retarded?

    I thought Hunt’s plaintive whines were a big bowl of bollocks.

    All I can say is…fuck off, dinosaur. We’re better off without you in any position of authority.

    We can glean additional data in the comments to these posts that demonstrate the human version of “othering.”  Members of outgroups, or “others,” are not only “bad,” but also typically impure and disgusting.  For example,

    Glad I wasn’t the only–or even the first!–to mention that long-enough-to-macramé nose hair. I think I know what’s been going on: The female scientists in his lab are always trying hard to not stare at the bales of hay peeking out of his nostrils and he’s been mistaking their uncomfortable, demure behaviour as ‘falling in love with him’.

    However, in creatures with brains large enough to cogitate about what their emotions are trying to tell them, the same suite of moral predispositions can easily give rise to stark differences in moral judgments.  Sure enough, others concluded that Myers and those who agreed with him were “bad.”  Prominent among them was Richard Dawkins, who wrote in an open letter to the London Times,

    Along with many others, I didn’t like Sir Tim Hunt’s joke, but ‘disproportionate’ would be a huge underestimate of the baying witch-hunt that it unleashed among our academic thought police: nothing less than a feeding frenzy of mob-rule self-righteousness.”

    The moral emotions of other Nobel laureates informed them that Dawkins was right.  For example, according to the Telegraph,

    Sir Andre Geim, of the University of Manchester who shared the Nobel prize for physics in 2010 said that Sir Tim had been “crucified” by ideological fanatics , and castigated UCL for “ousting” him.

    Avram Hershko, an Israeli scientist who won the 2004 Nobel prize in chemistry, said he thought Sir Tim was “very unfairly treated.”  He told the Times: “Maybe he wanted to be funny and was jet lagged, but then the criticism in the social media and in the press was very much out of proportion. So was his prompt dismissal — or resignation — from his post at UCL .”

    All these reactions have one thing in common.  They are completely irrational unless one assumes the existence of “good” and “bad” as objective things rather than subjective impressions.  Or would you have me believe, dear reader, that statements like, “fuck off, dinosaur,” and allusions to crucifixion by “ideological fanatics” engaged in a “baying witch-hunt,” are mere cool, carefully reasoned suggestions about how best to advance the officially certified “good” of promoting greater female participation in the sciences?  Nonsense!  These people aren’t playing a game of charades, either.  Their behavior reveals that they genuinely believe, not only in the existence of “good” and “bad” as objective things, but in their own ability to tell the difference better than those who disagree with them.  If they don’t believe it, they certainly act like they do.  And yet these are some of the most intelligent representatives of our species.  One can but despair, and hope that aliens from another planet don’t turn up anytime soon to witness such ludicrous spectacles.

    Clearly, we can’t simply dispense with morality.  We’re much too stupid to get along without it.  Under the circumstances, it would be nice if we could all agree on what we will consider “good” and what “bad,” within the limits imposed by the innate bedrock of morality in human nature.  Unfortunately, human societies are now a great deal different than the ones that existed when the predispositions that are responsible for the existence of morality evolved, and they tend to change very rapidly.  It stands to reason that it will occasionally be necessary to “adjust” the types of behavior we consider “good” and “bad” to keep up as best we can.  I personally doubt that the current practice of climbing up on rickety soap boxes and shouting down anathemas on anyone who disagrees with us, and then making the “adjustment” according to who shouts the loudest, is really the most effective way to accomplish that end.  Among other things, it results in too much collateral damage in the form of shattered careers and ideological polarization.  I can’t suggest a perfect alternative at the moment, but a little self-knowledge might help in the search for one.  Shedding the illusion of objective morality would be a good start.

    soapbox

  • The Regrettable Overreach of “Faith versus Fact”

    Posted on June 12th, 2015 Helian 10 comments

    The fact that the various gods that mankind has invented over the years, including the currently popular ones, don’t exist has been sufficiently obvious to any reasonably intelligent pre-adolescent who has taken the trouble to think about it since at least the days of Jean Meslier.  That unfortunate French priest left us with a Testament that exposed the folly of belief in imaginary super-beings long before the days of Darwin.  It included most of the “modern” arguments, including the dubious logic of inventing gods to explain everything we don’t understand, the many blatant contradictions in the holy scriptures, the absurdity of the notion that an infinitely wise and perfect being could be moved to fury or even offended by the pathetic sins of creatures as abject as ourselves, the lack of any need for a supernatural “grounding” for human morality, and many more.  Over the years these arguments have been elaborated and expanded by a host of thinkers, culminating in the work of today’s New Atheists.  These include Jerry Coyne, whose Faith versus Fact represents their latest effort to talk some sense into the true believers.

    Coyne has the usual human tendency, shared by his religious opponents, of “othering” those who disagree with him.  However, besides sharing a “sin” that few if any of us are entirely free of, he has some admirable traits as well.  For example, he has rejected the Blank Slate ideology of his graduate school professor/advisor, Richard Lewontin, and even goes so far as to directly contradict him in FvF.  In spite of the fact that he is an old “New Leftist” himself, he has taken a principled stand against the recent attempts of the ideological Left to dismantle freedom of speech and otherwise decay to its Stalinist ground state.  Perhaps best of all as far as a major theme of this blog is concerned, he rejects the notion of objective morality that has been so counter-intuitively embraced by Sam Harris, another prominent New Atheist.

    For the most part, Faith versus Fact is a worthy addition to the New Atheist arsenal.  It effectively dismantles the “sophisticated Christian” gambit that has encouraged meek and humble Christians of all stripes to imagine themselves on an infinitely higher intellectual plane than such “undergraduate atheists” as Richard Dawkins and Chris Hitchens.  It refutes the rapidly shrinking residue of “God of the gaps” arguments, and clearly illustrates the difference between scientific evidence and religious “evidence.”  It destroys the comfortable myth that religion is an “other way of knowing,” and exposes the folly of seeking to accommodate religion within a scientific worldview.  It was all the more disappointing, after nodding approvingly through most of the book, to suffer one of those “Oh, No!” moments in the final chapter.  Coyne ended by wandering off into an ideological swamp with a fumbling attempt to link obscurantist religion with “global warming denialism!”

    As it happens, I am a scientist myself.  I am perfectly well aware that when an external source of radiation such as that emanating from the sun passes through an ideal earthlike atmosphere that has been mixed with a dose of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, impinges on an ideal earthlike surface, and is re-radiated back into space, the resulting equilibrium temperature of the atmosphere will be higher than if no greenhouse gases were present.  I am also aware that we are rapidly adding such greenhouse gases to our atmosphere, and that it is therefore reasonable to be concerned about the potential effects of global warming.  However, in spite of that it is not altogether irrational to take a close look at whether all the nostrums proposed as solutions to the problem will actually do any good.

    In fact, the earth does not have an ideal static atmosphere over an ideal static and uniform surface.  Our planet’s climate is affected by a great number of complex, interacting phenomena.  A deterministic computer model capable of reliably predicting climate change decades into the future is far beyond the current state of the art.  It would need to deal with literally millions of degrees of freedom in three dimensions, in many cases using potentially unreliable or missing data.  The codes currently used to address the problem are probabilistic, reduced basis models, that can give significantly different answers depending on the choice of initial conditions.

    In a recently concluded physics campaign at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, scientists attempted to achieve thermonuclear fusion ignition by hitting tiny targets containing heavy isotopes of hydrogen with the most powerful laser system ever built.  The codes they used to model the process should have been far more accurate than any current model of the earth’s climate.  These computer models included all the known relevant physical phenomena, and had been carefully benchmarked against similar experiments carried out on less powerful laser systems.  In spite of that, the best experimental results didn’t come close to the computer predictions.  The actual number of fusion reactions hardly came within two orders of magnitude of expected values.  The number of physical approximations that must be used in climate models is far greater than were necessary in the Livermore fusion codes, and their value as predictive tools must be judged accordingly.

    In a word, we have no way of accurately predicting the magnitude of the climate change we will experience in coming decades.  If we had unlimited resources, the best policy would obviously be to avoid rocking the only boat we have at the moment.  However, this is not an ideal world, and we must wisely allocate what resources we do have among competing priorities.  Resources devoted to fighting climate change will not be available for medical research and health care, education, building the infrastructure we need to maintain a healthy economy, and many other worthy purposes that could potentially not only improve human well-being but save many lives.  Before we succumb to frantic appeals to “do something,” and spend a huge amount of money to stop global warming, we should at least be reasonably confident that our actions will measurably reduce the danger.  To what degree can we expect “science” to inform our decisions, whatever they may be?

    For starters, we might look at the track record of the environmental scientists who are now sounding the alarm.  The Danish scientist Bjorn Lomborg examined that record in his book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, in areas as diverse as soil erosion, storm frequency, deforestation, and declining energy resources.  Time after time he discovered that they had been crying “wolf,” distorting and cherry-picking the data to support dire predictions that never materialized.  Lomborg’s book did not start a serious discussion of potential shortcomings of the scientific method as applied in these areas.  Instead he was bullied and vilified.  A kangaroo court was organized in Denmark made up of some of the more abject examples of so-called “scientists” in that country, and quickly found Lomborg guilty of “scientific dishonesty,” a verdict which the Danish science ministry later had the decency to overturn.  In short, the same methods were used against Lomborg as were used decades earlier to silence critics of the Blank Slate orthodoxy in the behavioral sciences, resulting in what was possibly the greatest scientific debacle of all time.  At the very least we can conclude that all the scientific checks and balances that Coyne refers to in such glowing terms in Faith versus Fact have not always functioned with ideal efficiency in promoting the cause of truth.  There is reason to believe that the environmental sciences are one area in which this has been particularly true.

    Under the circumstances it is regrettable that Coyne chose to equate “global warming denialism” a pejorative term used in ideological squabbles that is by its very nature unscientific, with some of the worst forms of religious obscurantism.  Instead of sticking to the message, in the end he let his political prejudices obscure it.  Objections to the prevailing climate change orthodoxy are hardly coming exclusively from the religious fanatics who sought to enlighten us with “creation science,” and “intelligent design.”  I invite anyone suffering from that delusion to have a look at some of the articles the physicist and mathematician Lubos Motl has written about the subject on his blog, The Reference Frame.  Examples may be found here, here and, for an example with a “religious” twist,  here.  There he will find documented more instances of the type of “scientific” behavior Lomborg cited in The Skeptical Environmentalist.  No doubt many readers will find Motl irritating and tendentious, but he knows his stuff.  Anyone who thinks he can refute his take on the “science” had better be equipped with more knowledge of the subject than is typically included in the bromides that appear in the New York Times.

    Alas, I fear that I am once again crying over spilt milk.  I can only hope that Coyne has an arrow or two left in his New Atheist quiver, and that next time he chooses a publisher who will insist on ruthlessly chopping out all the political Nebensächlichkeiten.  Meanwhile, have a look at his Why Evolution is True website.  In addition to presenting a convincing case for evolution by natural selection and a universe free of wrathful super beings, Professor Ceiling Cat, as he is known to regular visitors for reasons that will soon become apparent to newbies, also posts some fantastic wildlife pictures.  And if it’s any consolation, I see his book has been panned by John Horgan.  Anyone with enemies like that can’t be all bad.  Apparently Horgan’s review was actually solicited by the editors of the Wall Street Journal.  Go figure!  One wonders what rock they’ve been sleeping under lately.

  • Faith versus Fact: New Atheism Rejects the Blank Slate

    Posted on June 6th, 2015 Helian 6 comments

    Jerry Coyne just launched another New Atheist salvo against the Defenders of the Faith in the form of his latest book, Faith versus Fact.  It’s well written and well reasoned, effectively squashing the “sophisticated Christian” gambit of the faithful, and storming some of their few remaining “God of the gaps” redoubts.  However, one of its most striking features is its decisive rejection of the Blank Slate.  The New Atheists have learned to stop worrying and love innate morality!

    Just like the Blank Slaters of yore, the New Atheists may be found predominantly on the left of the political spectrum.  In Prof. Coyne’s case the connection is even more striking.  As a graduate student, his professor/advisor was none other than Blank Slate kingpin Richard Lewontin of Not In Our Genes fame!  In spite of that, in Faith versus Fact he not only accepts but positively embraces evolutionary psychology in general and innate morality in particular.  Why?

    It turns out that, along with the origin of life, the existence of consciousness, the “fine tuning” of physical constants, etc.,  one of the more cherished “gaps” in the “God of the gaps” arguments of the faithful is the existence of innate morality.  As with the other “gap” gambits, the claim is that it couldn’t exist unless God created it.  As noted in an earlier post, the Christian philosopher Francis Hutcheson used a combination of reason and careful observation of his own species to demonstrate the existence of an innate “moral sense,” building on the earlier work of Anthony Ashley-Cooper and others early in the 18th century.  The Blank Slaters would have done well to read his work.  Instead, they insisted on the non-existence of human nature, thereby handing over this particular “gap” to the faithful by default.   Obviously, Prof. Coyne had second thoughts, and decided to snatch it back.  However, he doesn’t quite succeed in breaking entirely with the past.  Instead, he insists on elevating “cultural morality” to a co-equal status with innate morality, and demonstrates that he has swallowed Steven Pinker’s fanciful “academic version” of the history of the Blank Slate in the process.  Allow me to quote at length some of the relevant passages from his book:

    Evolution disproves critical parts of both the Bible and the Quran – the creation stories – yet millions have been unable to abandon them.  Finally, and perhaps most important, evolution means that human morality, rather than being imbued in us by God, somehow arose via natural processes:  biological evolution involving natural selection on behavior, and cultural evolution involving our ability to calculate, foresee, and prefer the results of different behaviors.

    Here we encounter the conflation of biological and cultural evolution, which are described as if they were independent factors accounting for the “rise” of human morality.  This tendency to embrace innate explanations while at the same time clinging to the “culture and learning” of the Blank Slate as a distinct, quasi-independent determinant of moral behavior is a recurring theme in FvF.  A bit later Coyne seems to return to the Darwinian fold, citing his comments on “well-marked social instincts.”

    In his 1871 book The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, where Darwin first applied his theory of evolution by natural selection to humans, he did not neglect morality.  In chapter 3, he floats what can be considered the first suggestion that our morality may be an elaboration by our large brains of social instincts evolved in our ancestors:  “The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable – namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed, or nearly as well developed, as in man.”

    This impression is apparently confirmed in the following remarkable passage:

    A century later, the biologist Edward O. Wilson angered many by asserting the complete hegemony of biology over ethics:  “Scientists and humanists should consider together the possibility that the time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologicized.”  Wilson’s statement, in the pathbreaking book Sociobiology:  The New Synthesis, really began the modern incursion of evolution into human behavior that has become the discipline of evolutionary psychology.  In the last four decades psychologists, philosophers, and biologists have begun to dissect the cultural and evolutionary roots of morality.

    Here we find, almost verbatim, Steven Pinker’s bowdlerized version of the “history” of the Blank Slate, featuring E. O. Wilson as the knight in shining armor who came out of nowhere to “begin the modern incursion of evolution into human behavior,” with the publication of Sociobiology in 1975.  Anyone with even a faint familiarity with the source material knows that Pinker’s version is really nothing but a longish fairy tale.  The “modern incursion of evolution into human behavior” was already well underway in Europe in 1951, when Niko Tinbergen published his The Study of Instinct.  It was continued there through the 50’s and 60’s in the work of Konrad Lorenz, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, and many others.  Long before the appearance of Sociobiology, Robert Ardrey began the publication of a series of four books on evolved human nature that really set in motion the smashing of the Blank Slate orthodoxy in the behavioral sciences.  There is literally nothing of any significance in Sociobiology bearing on the “incursion of evolution into human behavior” or the emergence of what came to be called evolutionary psychology that is not merely an echo of work that had been published by Ardrey, Lorenz, Tinbergen, and others many years earlier.  No matter.  It would seem that Pinker’s fanciful “history” has now been transmogrified into one of Coyne’s “facts.”

    But I digress.  As noted above, even as Coyne demolishes morality as one of the “gaps” that must be filled by inventing a God by noting its emergence as an evolved trait, and even as he explicitly embraces evolutionary psychology, which has apparently only recently become “respectable,” he can never quite entirely free himself from the stench of the Blank Slate.  Finally, as if frightened by his own temerity, and perhaps feeling the withering gaze of his old professor/advisor Lewontin, Coyne executes a partial retreat from the territory he has just attempted to reconquer:

    In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker makes a strong case that since the Middle Ages most societies have become much less brutal, due largely to changes in what’s considered moral.  So if morality is innate, it’s certainly malleable.  And that itself refutes the argument that human morality comes from God, unless the moral sentiments of the deity are equally malleable.  The rapid change in many aspects of morality, even in the last century, also suggests that much of its “innateness” comes not from evolution but from learning.  That’s because evolutionary change simply doesn’t occur fast enough to explain societal changes like our realization that women are not an inferior moiety of humanity, or that we shouldn’t torture prisoners.  The explanation for these changes must reside in reason and learning:  our realization that there is no rational basis for giving ourselves moral privilege over those who belong to other groups.

    Here we find the good professor behaving for all the world like one of Niko Tinbergen’s famous sticklebacks who, suddenly realizing he has strayed far over the established boundary of his own territory, rushes back to more familiar haunts.  Only one of Lewontin’s “genetic determinists” would be obtuse enough to suggest that the meanderings of 21st century morality are caused by “evolution,” and those are as rare as unicorns.  Obviously, no such extraordinarily rapid evolution is necessary.  The innate wellsprings of human morality need not “evolve” at all to account for these wanderings, which are adequately accounted for by the fact that they represent the mediation of a relatively static “moral sense” in a rapidly changing environment through the consciousness of creatures with large brains.  As brilliantly demonstrated by Hutcheson in his An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections, absent this “root cause” in the form of evolved behavioral predispositions, “reason and learning” could chug along for centuries without spitting out anything remotely resembling morality.  Innate behavioral predispositions are the basis of all moral behavior, and without them morality as we know it would not exist.  The only role of “reason and learning” is in interpreting and mediating the “moral passions.”  Absent those passions, there would be literally nothing to be reasoned about or learned that would manifest itself as moral behavior.  They, and not “reason and learning” are the sine qua non for the existence of morality.

    But let us refrain from looking this particular gift horse in the mouth.  In general, as noted above, the New Atheists may be found more or less in the same region of the ideological spectrum as was once occupied by the Blank Slaters.  If they are now constrained to add innate behavior to their arsenal as one more weapon in their continuing battle against the faithful, so much the better for all of us.  If nothing else it enhances the chances that, at least for the time being, students of human behavior will be able to continue acquiring the knowledge we need to gain self-understanding without fear of being bullied and intimidated for pointing out facts that happen to be politically inconvenient.

  • Whither Morality?

    Posted on April 19th, 2015 Helian 4 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.