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  • Morality and Reason – Why Do We Do the Things We Do?

    Posted on January 12th, 2019 Helian 4 comments

    Consider the evolution of life from the very beginning. Why did the first stirrings of life – molecules that could reproduce themselves – do what they did? The answer is simple – chemistry. As life forms became more complex, they eventually acquired the ability to exploit external sources of energy, such as the sun or thermal vents, to survive and reproduce. They improved the odds of survival even further by acquiring the ability to move towards or away from such resources. One could easily program a machine to perform such simple tasks. Eventually these nascent life forms increased the odds that they would survive and reproduce even further by acquiring the ability to extract energy from other life forms. These other life forms could only survive themselves by virtue of acquiring mechanisms to defend themselves from these attacks. This process of refining the traits necessary to survive continues to this day. We refer to it as natural selection. Survival tools of astounding complexity have evolved in this way, such as the human brain, with its ability evoke consciousness of such things as the information received from our sense organs, drives such as thirst, hunger, and sexual desire, and our emotional responses to, for example, our own behavior and the behavior of others. Being conscious of these things, it can also reason about them, considering how best to satisfy our appetites for food, water, sex, etc., and how to interpret the emotions we experience as we interact with others of our species.

    A salient feature of all these traits, from simple to complex, is the reason they exist to begin with. They exist because at the time and in the environment in which they evolved, they enhanced the odds that we would survive, or at least they did to the extent that they were relevant to our survival at all. They exist for no other reason. Our emotions and predispositions to behave in some ways and not others are certainly no exception. They are innate, in the sense that their existence depends on genetic programming. Thanks to natural selection, we also possess consciousness and the ability to reason. As a result, we can reason about what these emotions and predispositions mean, and how we should respond to them. They are not rigid instincts, and they do not “genetically determine” our behavior. In the case of a subset of them, we refer to the outcome of this process of reasoning about and seeking to interpret them as morality. It is these emotions and predispositions that are the root cause for the existence of morality. Without them, morality as we know it would not exist. They exist by virtue of natural selection. At some time and in some environment, they promoted our survival and reproduction. It can hardly be assumed that they will accomplish the same result at a later date and in a different environment. In fact, it is quite apparent that in the drastically different environment we live in today, they often accomplish the opposite. For a sizable subset of the human population, morality has become maladaptive.

    The remarkable success of our species in expanding from a small cohort of African apes to cover virtually the entire planet is due in large part to our ability to deal with rapid changes in the environment. We can thrive in the tropics or the arctic, and in deserts or rain forests. However, when it comes to morality, we face a very fundamental problem in dealing with such radical changes. Our brain spawns illusions that make it extremely difficult for us to grasp the nature of the problem we are dealing with. We perceive Good, Evil, Rights, etc., as real, objective things. These illusions are extremely powerful, because by being powerful they could most effectively regulate our behavior in ways that promoted survival. Now, in many cases, the illusions have become a threat to our survival, but we can’t shake them, or see them for what they really are. What they are is subjective constructs that are completely incapable of existing independently outside of the minds of individuals. Even those few who claim to see through the illusion are found defending various “Goods,” “Evils,” “Rights,” “Duties,” and other “Oughts” in the very next breath as if they were referring to real, objective things. They often do so in support of behaviors that are palpably maladaptive, if not suicidal.

    An interesting feature of such maladaptive behaviors is the common claim that they are justified by “reason.” The Scotch-Irish philosopher Francis Hutcheson explained very convincingly why moral claims can’t be based on reason alone almost 300 years ago. As David Hume put it somewhat later, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Reason alone can never do anything but chase its own tail. After all, computers don’t program themselves. There must be something to reason about. In the case of human behavior the chain of reasons can be as long and as elaborate as you please, but must always and invariably originate in an innate predisposition or drive, whether it be hunger, thirst, lust, or what is occasionally referred to as our “moral sense.” Understood in that way, all of our actions are “unreasonable,” because reason can never, ever serve as the cause of our actions itself.  Reasoning about good and evil is equivalent to reasoning about the nature of God. In both cases one is reasoning about imaginary things. Behavior can never be objectively good or evil, because those categories only exist as illusions. It can, however, be objectively described as adaptive or maladaptive, depending on whether it enhances the odds of genetic survival or not.

    In the case of morality, maladaptive behavior is seldom limited to a single individual. Morality is always other-regarding. The illusion that Good, Evil, etc., exist as independent, objective things implies that, not just we ourselves, but everyone else “ought” to behave in ways that embrace the “Good,” and resist “Evil.” As a result we assume a “right” to dictate potentially maladaptive and/or suicidal behavior to others. If we are good at manipulating the relevant emotions, those others may quite possibly agree with us. If we can convince them to believe our version of the illusion, they may accept our reasoning about what our moral emotions are “really” trying to tell us, and become convinced that they must act in ways detrimental to their own survival as well. They may clearly see that they are being induced to behave in a way that is not to their advantage, but the illusion would tend to paralyze any attempt to behave differently. The only means of resistance would be to manipulate the moral sense so as to evoke different illusions of what good and evil “really” are.

    If, as noted above, there is nothing objectively good or evil about anything, it follows that there is nothing objectively good or evil about any of these behaviors. They are simply biological facts that happen to be observable at a given time and in a given environment. However, whatever one seeks to accomplish in life, they will be more likely to succeed if they base their actions on facts rather than illusions. That applies to the illusions associated with our moral sense as much as to any others. The vast majority of us, including myself, have an almost overwhelming sense that the illusions are real, and that good and evil are objective things. However, it is becoming increasingly dangerous, if not suicidal, to continue to cling to these illusions, assuming one places any value on survival.

    Most of us have goals in life. In most cases those goals are based on illusions such as those described above. Human beings tend to stumble blindly through life, without a clue about the fundamental reasons they behave the way they do. Occasionally one sees them jumping off cliffs, stridently insisting that others must jump off the cliff too, because it is “good,” or it is their “duty.” Perhaps Socrates had such behavior in mind when he muttered, “The unexamined life is not worth living” at his trial. Before jumping off a cliff, would it not be wise to closely examine your reasons for doing so, following those reasons to their emotional source, and considering why those emotions exist to begin with? I, too, have goals. Paramount among my personal goals is survival and reproduction. There is nothing intrinsically or objectively better about those goals than anyone else’s, including the goal of jumping off a cliff. I have them because I perceive them to be in harmony with the reasons I exist to begin with. Those who do not wish to survive and reproduce appear to me to be sick and dysfunctional biological units. I do not care to be such a unit. As corollary goals I wish for the continued evolution of my species to become ever more capable of survival, and beyond that for the continued existence of biological life in general. I have no basis for claiming that my goals are “correct,” or that the goals of others are “wrong.” Mine are just as much expressions of emotion as anyone else’s. Call them whims, if you will, but at least they have the virtue of being whims that aren’t self destructive.

    Supposing you have similar goals, I suggest that it would behoove you to shed the illusion of objective morality. That is by no means the same thing as dispensing with morality entirely, nor does it imply that you can’t treat a version of morality you deem conducive to your survival as an absolute. In other words, it doesn’t imply “moral relativism.” It is our nature to perceive whatever version of morality we happen to favor as absolute. Understanding why that is our nature will not result in moral nihilism, but it will have the happy effect of pulling the rug out from under the feet of the moralistic bullies who have always assumed a right to dictate behavior to the rest of us. To understand morality is to realize that the “moral high ground” they imagine they’re standing on doesn’t exist.

    It is unlikely that any of us will be able to resist or significantly influence the massive shifts in population, ideology and the other radical changes to the world we live in that are happening at an ever increasing rate merely by virtue of the fact that we recognize morality and the illusions of objective good and evil associated with it for what they really are. However, it seems to me that recognizing the truth will at least enhance our ability to cope with those changes. In other words, it will help us survive, and, after all, survival is the reason that morality exists to begin with.

  • Touching on the Dangers of Living Among the Morally Delusional

    Posted on December 17th, 2018 Helian 5 comments

    A major theme of all I have written about morality is that it is subjective. Assuming I am right, this fact has major implications regarding human behavior. It follows, for example, that good and evil do not exist as objective things. Since they are almost universally imagined to actually be objective things, it follows that good and evil are subjective illusions. This begs the question of why the illusions exist. The obvious reason is that they exist by virtue of natural selection. As a result of the natural process of evolution we have brains that construct these illusions because, at some time and in some environment that was likely vastly different from the present, the illusions happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. They are an aspect of human nature, if you will, and one that gives rise to what we commonly refer to as morality. Absent this particular aspect of human nature, morality as we know it would not exist.

    Morality predisposes us to imagine that we ought to do some things, and ought not to do others. However, since the mental traits responsible for morality are the result of a natural process, it is impossible that there can be anything that we ought or ought not to do from an objective point of view. To imagine otherwise is to fall victim to the naturalistic fallacy. However, a life lived in complete indifference to what we ought or ought not to do would certainly be boring, and probably impossible for creatures such as ourselves, with a powerful predisposition to imagine that good and evil are real things. The question is, how do we come up with our oughts and ought nots? More broadly speaking, how do we come up with a “meaning of life” to which all of our other oughts and ought nots would presumably be subordinated? The obvious answer is that we assign these things to ourselves.

    From a purely personal point of view I consider it expedient to consider rationally this matter of what ultimate goals to assign myself, and what I ought and ought not to do in pursuit of these goals. I have decided that my own personal goals should include survival and reproduction. There is no objective reason for pursuing such a goal, anymore than there is an objective reason for pursuing any other goal. I have chosen these goals because of my conclusion that virtually all of my essential physical and mental traits exist because they enhanced the odds that I would survive and reproduce. I prefer to act in a way that is in harmony with the natural processes that are responsible for my existence. If I were to do otherwise, I would have the impression that I had become “sick” or “dysfunctional” as a biological unit. In keeping with this goal, I have the additional goals of ensuring the survival of my species, and promoting its continued evolution to become ever more capable of surviving in any environment it is likely to encounter, and of ensuring the survival of biological life itself. I consider these additional goals reasonable because I deem them preconditions for my original goal of survival and reproduction, extended into the indefinite future. None of these goals are justifiable from an objective point of view, independent of my subjective mind. It is impossible for any goal to have that attribute. Call them whims, if you will, but there you have them. I have laid my cards on the table.

    I would certainly like to see the other members of my species lay their cards on the table in a similar fashion, but that is not likely to happen. The problem is that almost all of them are delusional. They actually believe that the illusions of good and evil are real. Many of them also believe that their meaning and purpose are supplied by imaginary gods that don’t actually exist. Unfortunately, all this has a severe impact, not just on themselves, but on those around them as well. It can do a lot of what those others may perceive, and what I personally certainly perceive, as harm.

    Consider, for example, the case of morality. There has always been widespread recognition of the harm done by those who blindly follow their moral whims. Shakespeare referred to them as “devils of Puritans.” More recently, they have been contemptuously referred to as the Uplift, or do gooders, or Social Justice Warriors. Seldom if ever, however, has anyone been able to put their finger on the reason why the behavior of such people is dangerous and harmful. The main reason for this is that they have always suffered from the same delusion as the do gooders. They, too, have imagined that good and evil exist as objective things. They merely believe in different versions of these imaginary things. As a result, they cannot simply point out that the pathologically pious among us are blindly following an emotional whim that is harmful to the rest of us. They are generally reduced to coming up with an alternative grab bag of goods and evils, and engaging in futile arguments over whose grab bag is better. Since the do gooders are generally a great deal more adept at manipulating moral emotions, they commonly win these arguments.

    Consider what the outcome of this state of affairs has been concerning, for example, the integrity of national borders. In recent years, much of Europe, North American, and parts of east Asia had reached a state of affairs in which the birthrates of the indigenous populations was below replacement level. Eventually, this would have caused their populations to begin shrinking. In some cases they have already begun to shrink. From my personal point of view, this is an extremely good state of affairs. I would be the first to admit that alarmists have exaggerated many of the environmental problems we face. However, considering that earth is the only boat we have to live in at the moment, why rock it? Virtually every environmental problem you could name would go away with substantial reductions in population. With fewer others to compete with for limited resources, there would be more elbow room for my descendants. We are told that the economy will only be good as long as the population continually increases. Obviously, this can’t go on forever. The planet can only sustain so many people, and its limits are already being strained in many areas. To the extent that survival is a goal we have in common, it would be much better, not only for me, but for our species in general, if at least a few enclaves could be preserved with sustainable populations. Worrying about or tweaking the economy amounts to little more than an exercise in rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. We have far more substantial problems to worry about.

    However, we are told by the pathologically pious that we cannot continue to protect these potentially sustainable enclaves of ours because it is immoral. We must open our borders and allow anyone who pleases to move in, because this is the “moral” thing to do. The result is not hard to foresee. The amount of environmental damage these immigrants will cause will be vastly greater than if they had stayed in their own countries. Our population will no longer begin decreasing to more sustainable levels. Those coming in are culturally and ethnically different from the population already here. In view of the invariable human tendency to view others in terms of ingroups and outgroups, this will inevitably lead to social tension, perhaps culminating in civil war.  Even in terms of the economy, there is no evidence that allowing cheap labor to flood across the border, placing huge demands on our health, educational, and social welfare resources, will have a beneficial effect, even in the short term. Our population will begin to look more and more like the populations of South American countries such as Brazil and Venezuela that have been notably unsuccessful in sustaining a level of affluence similar to the one we enjoy, in spite of their control over vast natural resources. These obvious objections are commonly rationalized away with specious arguments in the interest of doing “good.”

    If I were to ask those who support such a destructive policy to justify their claim that it must be done because it is moral, they would be incapable of responding with a coherent answer. If they actually understood what morality is, the best reply they could give me would be that they want to do it to satisfy an emotional whim. However, that emotional whim evolved at a time when our species never had to deal with such issues. Attempting to solve the complex issues we are faced with now by doing whatever happens to be most emotionally satisfying is not only stupid, but self-destructive. Unfortunately, those who seek to blindly satisfy their emotional whims in this way apply them not just to themselves, but to the rest of us as well. Unless they are allowed to dictate to us what we “ought” or “ought not” to do, not only in the matter of borders, but in everything else, then they will deem us “evil,” and seek to force their emotionally motivated solutions to all the world’s problems down our collective throats.

    Unless we wake up and realize what morality actually is, those who hardly have our welfare or interests at heart will continue to manipulate it to lead us around by the nose. Unfortunately, I don’t see our species waking up any time soon. Our situation will remain as it is. Whatever goals and purposes we happen to assign ourselves, we must learn to deal with it. 

  • Morality Whimsy: Darwin and the Latter Day Philosophers

    Posted on September 30th, 2018 Helian No comments

    It’s hard to imagine how Darwin could have explained morality more clearly, given the Victorian context in which he wrote.  In Chapter IV of his The Descent of Man he said in so many words that it is a subjective manifestation of human nature. However, as I pointed out in my last post, even the philosophers of the 19th century who understood natural selection couldn’t draw the obvious conclusions.  None of them could free themselves of the illusion that Good and Evil are real, objective things, existing independently of human minds.  This was reflected in the various systems of “evolutionary morality” they proposed. They typically assumed that evolved morality had a goal, or purpose, which was usually some version of human flourishing, moral perfection, or “the good of the species.”  To all appearances, it never occurred to any of them that, as a natural process, evolution by natural selection cannot have a goal or a purpose.  In the 20th century, moral philosophers began to accept some of the more obvious implications of Darwinism.  In spite of that, they remained spellbound by the power of the illusion.  The only significant exception I’m aware of was Edvard Westermarck, who pointed out some of the obvious implications of Darwin’s claim that morality exists by virtue of evolved behavioral traits as far back as 1906.  He was forgotten, and we haven’t recovered the lost ground since.

    Today we know a lot more about the mechanics of natural selection than they did in the 19th century.  The study of morality suffered as much as any of the other behavioral sciences during the Blank Slate debacle, but we seem to be on the path to recovery, at least for the time being. Today many scientists and philosophers are at least vaguely aware of the fact, obvious as it was to Darwin, that human morality is a manifestation of innate behavioral traits. Some of them have even drawn some of the more obvious conclusions from that fact. However, we live in a highly moralistic era, especially in academia, and what we find written about morality today reflects this moralistic culture.

    To illustrate how far we’ve come, and how far we have yet to go, let’s consider the work of the philosopher Michael Ruse, one of the current crop of evolutionary moralists. He has written much on the subject, but I will focus on a paper he co-authored with E. O. Wilson back in 1986 entitled Moral Philosophy as Applied Science and the book Taking Darwin Seriously, published in 1999. First, the good news. Ruse does take Darwin seriously when it comes to the illusion of objective morality:

    …human beings function better if they are deceived by their genes into thinking that there is a disinterested objective morality binding upon them, which all should obey.

    We believe that implicit in the scientific interpretation of moral behavior is a conclusion of central importance to philosophy, namely that there can be no genuinely objective external ethical premises. Everything that we know about the evolutionary process indicates that no such extrasomatic guides exist.

    As these passages imply, Ruse also rejected the Blank Slate:

    The evidence from both genetic and cognitive studies demonstrates decisively that the human brain is not a tabula rasa.

    The following passage just repeats what Darwin wrote over a century ago in Chapter IV of The Descent of Man:

    It is easy to conceive of an alien intelligent species evolving rules its members consider highly moral but which are repugnant to human beings, such as cannibalism, incest, the love of darkness and decay, parricide, and the mutual eating of faeces. Many animal species perform some or all of these things, with gusto and in order to survive. If human beings had evolved from a stock other than savanna-dwelling, bipedal, carnivorous man-apes we might do the same, feeling inwardly certain that such behaviors are natural and correct. In short, ethical premises are the peculiar products of genetic history. And they can be understood solely as mechanisms that are adaptive for the species that possess them. It follows that the ethical code of one species cannot be translated into that of another. No abstract moral principles exist outside the particular nature of individual species.

    Ruse explicitly rejects the currently fashionable philosophical conceit that evolved morality somehow tracks “true” morality:

    It is thus entirely correct to say that ethical laws can be changed, at the deepest level, by genetic evolution. This is obviously quite inconsistent with the notion of morality as a set of objective, eternal verities. Morality is rooted in contingent human nature, through and through.

    Nor is it possible to uphold the true objectivity of morality by believing in the existence of an ultimate code, such that what is considered right corresponds to what is truly right – that the thoughts produced by the epigenetic rules parallel external premises.

    Here “epigenetic rules” is a term Ruse and Wilson coined referring to the innate predispositions that are responsible for the existence of morality. In other words, they’re what the 19th century philosophers referred to as “instincts.” It was an unfortunate choice in view of the current bitter disputes about the significance of epigenetic inheritance. They would have done better to stick with the terms already in use.

    So where is the fly in this promising ointment? To begin, Ruse isn’t quite on board with his own philosophy. In spite of his insistence on the subjective nature of morality, we constantly find him signaling to his morality-drenched academic peers that he’s “really good.” He suffers from the same morality addiction as the rest of them. Indeed, to get that monkey off his back, he would have to jump right out of his academic ingroup. For example,

    Like Huxley, I find these views (Social Darwinism)  taken to the extreme to be morally repellant. They are the epitome of all that is immoral, and anything but a guide to proper behavior… This philosophy I believe (generally) to be grossly immoral.

    Children with the disease (Tay-Sachs) develop at first in a normal manner. Then at six months they start to collapse into zombies, and die by the age of four. I see nothing immoral about detecting and aborting such children. In fact, I believe we have a positively moral obligation to do so.

    John Stuart Mill’s campaign for women’s rights was a good thing, as was Bertrand Russell’s opposition to nuclear weapons.

    What we have in the case of Darwinian ethics is a denial of objectivity, which is surely a denial of metaphysical reality by another name, and an affirmation of subjectivity, which is no less a commitment to common sense, in which the subject plays an active creative part. If anything is common sense, it is that rape is simply, totally, wrong.

    In spite of having affirmed that morality is a manifestation of innate predispositions, or “epigenetic rules,” Ruse can find nothing wrong with applying it to decide all sorts of issues that could not possibly have contributed to the evolution of those rules. Consider, for example, this passage, which also includes virtue signaling in the form of a wink and a nod to his liberal ingroup.

    Darwinism is anything but a gospel for the extreme conservative. Apart from anything else, no one is saying that there are humans towards whom we have no sense of moral obligation whatsoever. Furthermore, the pretense that we need not bother about the Third World is self-refuting. If we ignore it, then through such effects as overpopulation, we shall soon find that it raises all sorts of difficult moral issues which do directly impinge on us.

    In case we are left in any doubt about Ruse’s actual commitment to objective morality under a veneer of subjectivism, he adds,

    My only hope is to have shown that a Darwinian approach to morality does not call for a repudiation of standards and values cherished by decent people of all nations.

    It is beyond me where in Ruse’s philosophy one can find a definition of “decent people.” Indeed, his philosophy excludes the possibility that one can make unqualified reference to “decent people” unless “decency” exists as an independent object. In other words, his use of the term is a blatant non sequitur. All this makes no sense at all unless we are aware that Ruse imagines he has found a way to skip blithely around Hume’s is/ought barrier. It goes something like this:

    If morality means anything, it means being prepared to hold out a helping hand to others. Christians, utilitarians, Kantians, and everyone else come together on this.

    I guess I’m not one of the above. To me, morality refers to social behavior that is ultimately the result of evolved behavioral traits. The above is yet another example of Ruse’s tendency to objectivize a possible manifestation of that behavior as “good.” Next, we are optimistically informed that a universal human morality is possible based on the dubious assumption that there are no differences in the evolved traits on which it is based among human populations:

    When it comes to general shared moral principles, the Darwinian stands firm. Humans share a common moral understanding. This universality is guaranteed by the shared genetic background of every member of Homo sapiens. The differences between us are far outweighed by the similarities. We (virtually) all have hands, eyes, ears, noses, and the same ultimate awareness. That is part of being human. There is, therefore, absolutely nothing arbitrary about morality, considered from the human perspective.

    All this is so much hand waving. Given the evidence of vast differences in moral rules and behavior across human populations, the idea that there is absolutely nothing arbitrary about it is nonsense. No matter. Apparently based on this axiom of universality, a miracle happens. Ruse cuts the Gordian knot, and walks right around the is/ought barrier!

    To use an American sporting metaphor, the Darwinian does an end-run around the is/ought barrier. He/she realizes that you cannot go through it, but argues that you can go around it, giving morality all of the justificatory insight possible.

    In fact, all the “justificatory insight possible” amounts to zero. There is no plausible reason for the claim that the implausible assumption of universal “epigenetic rules” relevant to morality enables an “end-run” around the is/ought barrier. In other words, Ruse is just another modern philosopher attempting to have his cake and eat it, too.

    Unfortunately, Ruse has left out a few things in his “universal moral understanding.” Among them is the outgroup. He never mentions its existence in any of his work I’ve read so far, and yet, if there is any universal aspect of human moral behavior, that is one of them.  If what Ruse has written above about skipping around the is/ought barrier is true, then it becomes our duty to hate the outgroup with a blind, irrational fury. Beyond that, he never seriously takes into account the vast difference between the environment in which we now live, and the one in which the predispositions responsible for moral behavior evolved. If he did, it would immediately reduce his notion that morality is an appropriate tool for deciding issues about how to deal with the Third World to an absurdity.

    Perhaps the most significant thing of all that Ruse has left out of his philosophizing is a very fundamental feature of human morality. We do not apply it to ourselves alone. We apply it to others as well. To the extent that one imagines that he has done an “end-run” around the is/ought barrier, he also imagines that he has acquired the right to dictate behavior to others. After all, who are we to dispute such a noted philosopher’s take on what our “universal human morality” consists of? That is my biggest problem with our latter day “evolutionary moralists.” In reality, they are just as addicted to objective morality as their 19th century precursors, and just as intent on explaining to the rest of us what we “ought” to do.

    Do you like to have others dictate to you what you ought and ought not to do? I don’t. I know that we require some form of morality, because as a species we are too stupid to do without it. Under the circumstances, I prefer to keep it as simple as possible, and to reduce its sphere of influence as much as possible. It strikes me that expanding that sphere to include “the Third World,” or anything of the sort, is not only absurd, but extremely dangerous. I cannot give you any objective reason why you ought not to grovel before people who presume to dictate to you what you ought or ought not to do. I can only inform you that I prefer not to grovel myself. That, it seems to me, is one of the great advantages of grasping the truth about the subjective nature of morality. That truth does not imply moral chaos, or the impossibility of a society with “absolute” moral rules. It merely provides some insight into what such an “absolute” morality might look like in the context of whatever goals or purpose you’ve established for yourself in life.

    In my next post I will review the work of another modern “evolutionary moralist” who, predictably, has been no more capable of shaking the objective morality illusion than Ruse. Things haven’t changed much since the 19th century. The symptoms of the addiction have just become more subtle.

  • On Legitimizing Moral Laws: “Purpose” as a God Substitute

    Posted on January 14th, 2018 Helian 4 comments

    The mental traits responsible for moral behavior did not evolve because they happened to correspond to “universal moral truths.”  They evolved because they increased the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  The evolutionary origins of morality explain why we imagine the existence of “universal moral truths” to begin with.  We imagine that “moral truths” exist as objective things, independent of the minds that imagine them, because there was a selective advantage to perceiving them in that way.  Philosophers have long busied themselves with the futile task of “proving” that these figments of their imaginations really do exist just as they imagine them – as independent things.  Of course, even though they’ve been trying for thousands of years, they’ve never succeeded, for the very good reason that the things whose existence they’ve been trying to prove don’t exist.  No matter how powerfully our imaginations portray these illusions to us as real things, they remain illusions.

    God has always served as a convenient prop for objective morality.  It has always seemed plausible to many that, if God says something is morally good, it really is good.  Plato exposed the logical flaws of this claim in his Euthyphro.  However, such quibbles may be conveniently ignored by those who believe that the penalty for meddling with the logical basis of divine law is an eternity in hell.  They dispose of Plato by simply accepting without question the axiom that God is good.  If God is good, then his purposes must be good.  If, as claimed by the 18th century Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson, he endowed us with an innate moral sense, which serves as the fundamental source of morality, then he must have done it for a purpose.  Since that purpose is Godly, and therefore good in itself, moral rules that are true expressions of our God-given moral sense must be good in themselves as well. QED

    Unfortunately, there is no God, a fact that has become increasingly obvious over the years as the naturalistic explanations of the universe supplied by the advance of science have supplanted supernatural ones at an accelerating rate.  As a result, atheists already make up a large proportion of the population in many countries where threats of violence and ostracism are no longer effective props for the old religions.  However, most of these atheists haven’t yet succeeded in divorcing themselves from the spirit world.  They still believe that disembodied Goods and Evils hover about us in ghostly form, endowed with a magical power to dictate “right” behavior, not only to themselves, but to everyone else as well.

    The challenge these latter day moralists face, of course, is to supply an explanation of just how it is that the moral rules supplied by their vivid imaginations acquire the right to dictate behavior to the rest of us.  In view of the fact that, if one really believes in objective morality, independent of the subjective minds of individuals, one must also account for the recent disconcerting habit of the “moral law” to undergo drastic changes on an almost daily basis, this is no easy task.

    In fact, it is an impossible task, since the “objective” ghosts of Good and Evil exist no more in reality than does God.  However, there are powerful incentives to believe in these ghosts, just as there are powerful incentives to believe in God.  As a result, there has been no lack of trying.  One gambit in this direction, entitled Could Morality Have a Transcendent Evolved Purpose?, recently turned up at From Darwin to Eternity, one of the blogs hosted by Psychology Today.  According to the author, Michael Price, the “standard naturalistic conclusion” is that,

    It is hard to see how morality could ultimately serve any larger kind of purpose.  Conventional religions sidestep this problem, of course, by positing a supernatural purpose provider.  But that’s an unsatisfactory solution, if you wish to maintain a naturalistic worldview.

    Here it is important to notice an implied assumption that becomes increasingly obvious as we read further in the article.  The assumption is that, if we can successfully identify a “larger kind of purpose,” then the imagined good is somehow transformed into objective Good, and imagined evil into objective Evil.  There is no basis whatsoever for this assumption, regardless of where the “larger kind of purpose” comes from.  It is important to notice this disconnect, because Price apparently believes that, if morality can be shown to serve a “transcendent naturalistic purpose,” then it must thereby gain objective legitimacy and independent normative power.  He doesn’t say so explicitly, but if he doesn’t believe it, his article is pointless.  He goes on to claim that, according to the “conventional interpretation,” of those who accept the fact of evolution by natural selection,

    There can be no transcendent purpose, because no widely-understood natural process can generate such purpose. Transcendent purpose is a subject for religion, and maybe for philosophy, but not for science. That’s the standard naturalistic conclusion.

    I note in passing that, while this may be “the standard naturalistic conclusion,” it certainly hasn’t stopped the vast majority of its proponents from thinking and acting just as if they believed in objective morality.  I know of not a single exception among contemporary scientists or philosophers of any note, regardless of what their theories on the subject happen to be.  One can find artifacts in the writings or sayings of all of them that make no sense unless they believe in objective morality, regardless of what their philosophical theories on the subject happen to be.  Typically these artifacts take the form of assertions that some individual or group of individuals is morally good or evil, without any suggestion that the assertion is merely an opinion.  Such statements make no sense absent a belief in some objective Good, generally applicable to others besides themselves, and not merely an artifact of their subjective whims.  The innate illusion of objective Good has been too powerful for any of them to entirely free themselves of the fantasy.  Be that as it may, Price tells us that there is also an “unconventional interpretation.” He poses the rhetorical question,

    Could morality be “universal” in the sense that there is some transcendent moral purpose to human existence itself?… This is a tricky question because natural selection is the only process known to science that can ultimately engineer “purpose” (moral or otherwise). It does so by generating “function,” which is essentially synonymous with “purpose”: the function/purpose of an eye, for example, is to see.

    Notice the quotation marks around “purpose” and “function” when they’re first used in this quote.  That’s as it should be, as the terms are only used in this context as a convenient form of shorthand.  They refer to the reasons that the characteristics in question happened to enhance the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  However, these shorthand terms should never be confused with a real function or purpose.  In the case of “purpose,” for example, consider the actual definition found in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

    Purpose: 1: something set up as an object or end to be attained 2 : a subject under discussion or an action in course of execution

    Clearly, someone must be there to set up the object or end, or to discuss the subject.  In the case of evolution, no “someone” is there.  In other words, there is no purpose to evolution or its outcomes in the proper sense of the term.  However, if you look at the final sentence in the Price quote above, you’ll notice something odd has happened.  The quote marks have disappeared.  “Function/purpose” has suddenly become function/purpose!  One might charitably assume that Price is still using the terms in the same sense, and has simply neglected the quote marks.  If so, one would be assuming wrong.  A bit further on, the “purpose” that we saw change to purpose metastasizes again.  It is now not just a purpose, but a “transcendent naturalistic purpose!”  In Price’s words,

    I think the standard naturalistic conclusion is premature, however. There is one way in which transcendent naturalistic purpose could in fact exist.

    In the very next sentence, “transcendent naturalistic purpose” has completed the transformation from egg to butterfly, and becomes “transcendent moral purpose!” Again quoting Price,

    If selection is the only natural source of purpose, then transcendent moral purpose could exist if selection were operating at some level more fundamental than the biological.  Specifically, transcendent purpose would require a process of cosmological natural selection, with universes being selected from a multiverse based on their reproductive ability, and intelligence emerging (as a subroutine of cosmological evolution) as a higher-level adaptation for universe reproduction.  From this perspective, intelligent life (including its moral systems) would have a transcendent purpose: to eventually develop the sociopolitical and technical expertise that would enable it to cooperatively create new universes…  These ideas are highly speculative and may seem strange, especially if you haven’t heard them before.

    That’s for sure! In his conclusion Price gets a bit slippery about whether he personally buys into this extravagant word game. As he puts it,

    At any rate, my goal here is not to argue that these ideas are likely to be true, nor that they are likely to be false. I simply want to point out that if they’re false, then it seems like it must also be false – from a naturalistic perspective, at least – that morality could have any transcendent purpose.

    This implies that Price accepts the idea that, if “these ideas are likely to be true,” then morality actually could have a “transcendent purpose.”  Apparently we are to assume that moral rules could somehow acquire objective legitimacy by virtue of having a “transcendent purpose.”  The “proof” goes something like this:

    1. Morality evolved because it serves a “purpose.”
    2. Miracle a happens
    3. Therefore, morality evolved because it serves a purpose.
    4. Miracle b happens
    5. Therefore, morality evolved to serve an independent naturalistic purpose.
    6. Miracle c happens
    7. Therefore, morality evolved to serve a transcendental moral purpose.
    8. Miracle d happens
    9. If a transcendental moral purpose exists, then it automatically becomes our duty to obey moral rules that serve that purpose. The rules acquire objective legitimacy.

    So much for a rigorous demonstration that a new God in the form of “transcendental moral purpose” exists to replace the old God.  I doubt much has been gained here.  At least the “proofs” of the old God’s existence didn’t require such a high level of “mental flexibility.”  Would it be impertinent to ask how the emotional responses we normally associate with morality could become completely divorced from the “transcendental moral purpose,” to serve which we are to believe they actually exist?  Has anyone told the genes responsible for the predispositions that are the ultimate cause of our moral behavior about this “transcendental moral purpose?”

    In short, it’s clear that while belief in God is falling out of fashion, at least in some countries, belief in an equally imaginary “objective morality” most decidedly is not.  We have just reviewed an example of the ludicrous lengths to which our philosophers and “experts on morality” are willing to go to prop up their faith in this particular mirage.  It has been much easier for them to give up the God fantasy than the fantasy of their own moral righteousness.  Indeed, legions of these “experts on morality” would quickly find themselves unemployed if it were generally realized that what they claim to be “expert” about is a mere fantasy.  So goes life in the asylum.

  • Moral Whimsy

    Posted on May 8th, 2017 Helian 2 comments

    Human moralities have always been concocted and altered in a chaotic, and sometimes whimsical fashion.  They are all manifestations of innate behavioral predispositions that are probably quite similar across all human populations.  However, in conscious creatures with large brain such as ourselves, these predispositions can be interpreted very differently as a function of environment, culture, and pre-existing versions of morality.  As a result we see wild variations in the “end product” in the form of moral rules.  Moralities have always evolved in this way over time, both now and in the distant past.  In spite of the arbitrary nature of the process, the evanescent “moral laws” that happen to pop up and then disappear from time to time are perceived as objective things, unchanging, and independent of the social/biological process that actually gave rise to them.  This seemingly irrational perception actually makes perfect sense.  Morality exists because the traits responsible for it evolved, and they evolved because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  It turns out that the most effective way to improve the odds was to program the perception of moral rules as objective things.  However, they are not objective things, but manifestations of subjective emotions.  You might say that we are hard-wired to believe in hallucinations.  The chaotic process of “updating” a given version of morality referred to above happens when different individuals believe in different hallucinations.

    I recently ran across a good example of the process in action in an article in New York Magazine entitled “This Is What a Modern-Day Witch Hunt Looks Like.”  The particular moral rule at issue was the degree to which the terms “transgender” and “transracial” can be treated as equivalent.  Rebecca Tuval, an assistant professor (usually a junior, tenure track professor) of philosophy at Rhodes College in Memphis, had recently published an article in the feminist journal Hypatia entitled, “In Defense of Transracialism.”   Perhaps she thought the article was merely harmless padding for her resume, the better to facilitate her eventual promotion to full professor.  It didn’t turn out that way.  A vicious attack on her began in the form of an open letter to Hypatia, now signed by some hundreds of her academic colleagues, expressing “dismay” at the “harms” Tuvel had caused by her inappropriate conflation of the terms noted above.  The witch hunt continued with poison pen attacks posted at the usual social media suspects, culminating in an abject apology by “a majority of Hypatia’s board of associate editors” rivaling anything ever seen in Stalin’s Great Purge Trials.  I half expected to see a paragraph admitting that the journal’s staff had conspired with Trotsky himself to promote the counter-revolutionary plots of the Left Opposition.  A few days later, editor Sally Scholz and Miriam Solomon, president of Hypatia’s board of directors, fired back with disavowals of the disavowal.

    This is basically the manner in which moralities have always (culturally) evolved and changed.  As societies change, the members of particular ingroups, and especially ingroups that define themselves primarily by ideology, may experience strong moral emotions in response to supposed “evils” that were previously matters of indifference.  They then seek to manipulate the moral emotions of others so that they, too, perceive what amounts to an emotional whim as an objective thing.  This “thing” takes the form of an evil that exists independently of the evolved emotional predispositions that actually inspired the perception.  Members of other ingroups with different narratives, or members of the same ingroups responding more strongly to other moral emotions, push back, seeking to manipulate moral emotions in the opposite direction.  Whoever is the most effective manipulator wins, and a new “moral law” is born.

    The whole process is fundamentally irrational.  Why?  Because it amounts to a competition between alternative mirages.  The evolved emotional traits that are responsible for this aspect of human behavior exist because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  However, they did so at a time that was radically different from the present.  There is no guarantee that they will have the same result today as they did then.  None of this makes any difference to the parties to these disputes as they blindly chase their alternative illusions.  They are seldom aware of the connection between their behavior and its ultimate cause in emotional traits spawned in the process of evolution by natural selection.  The illusion that they are champions of a thing-in-itself called the Good is so powerful that it probably wouldn’t matter even if they did know.

    The above describes the process by which we currently seek to resolve the issues that arise in complex modern civilizations by attempting to satisfy emotional whims that are probably much the same as those experienced by our ancestors in the Pleistocene.  The results are seldom benign.  Sometimes the damage is limited to the destruction of some junior professor’s career.  Sometimes it involves warfare that costs millions their lives.  One can certainly imagine more rational ways of adjudicating among all these emotionally inspired whims.  However, I am not optimistic that one of them will be adopted anytime soon.  We are moralistic creatures to the core.  We are addicted to construing something we want as “the Good,” and then manipulating the moral emotions of others to get it.  The effect “the Good” might actually have on the odds of our genetic survival is normally a matter of utter indifference.  We live in a world of irrational creatures, all seeking to satisfy emotional whims without the least regard for whether they accomplish the same thing as they did when they evolved or not.

    That’s the reality that we must deal with.  All of us must find our own way of coping.  However, as a tip to my readers, I suggest you think twice before publishing in a philosophical journal.  Unless, of course, you actually like to be bullied.

  • Post-Darwinian, “Evolutional” Theories of Morality in the 19th Century

    Posted on October 26th, 2014 Helian No comments

    It’s become fashionable in some quarters to claim that philosophy is useless.  I wouldn’t go that far.  Philosophers have at least been astute enough to notice some of the more self-destructive tendencies of our species, and to come up with more or less useful formulas for limiting the damage.  However, they have always had a tendency to overreach.  We are not intelligent enough to reliably discover truth far from the realm of repeatable experiments.  When we attempt to do so, we commonly wander off into intellectual swamps.  That is where one often finds philosophers.

    The above is well illustrated by the history of thought touching on the subject of morality in the decades immediately following the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859.  It was certainly realized in short order that Darwin’s theory was relevant to the subject of morality.  Perhaps no one at the time saw it better than Darwin himself.  However, the realization that the search for the “ultimate Go0d” was now over once and for all, because the object sought did not exist, was slow in coming.  Indeed, for the most part, it’s still not realized to this day.  The various “systems” of morality in the decades after Darwin’s book appeared kept stumbling forward towards the non-existent goal, like dead men walking.  For the most part, their creators never grasped the significance of the term “natural selection.”  Against all odds, they obstinately persisted in the naturalistic fallacy; the irrational belief that, to the extent that morality had evolved, it had done so “for the good of the species.”

    An excellent piece of historical source material documenting these developments can be found at Google Books.  Entitled, A Review of the Systems of Ethics Founded on the Theory of Evolution, it was written by one C. M. Williams, and published in 1893.  According to one version on Google Books, “C. M.” stands for “Cora Mae,” apparently a complete invention.  The copying is botched, so that every other page of the last part of the book is unreadable.  The second version, which is at least readable, claims the author was Charles Mallory Williams and, indeed, that name is scribbled after the initials “C. M.” in the version copied.  There actually was a Charles Mallory Williams.  He was a medical doctor, born in 1872, and would have been 20 years old at the time the book was published.  The chances that anyone so young wrote the book in question are vanishingly small.  Unfortunately, I must leave it to some future historian to clear up the mystery of who “C. M.” actually was, and move on to consider what he wrote.

    According to the author, by 1893 a flood of books and papers had already appeared addressing the connection between Darwin’s theory and morality.  In his words,

    Of the Ethics founded on the theory of Evolution, I have considered only the independent theories which have been elaborated to systems. I have omitted consideration of many works which bear on Evolutional Ethics as practical or exhortative treatises or compilations of facts, but which involve no distinctly worked out theory of morals.

    The authors who made the cut include Alfred Russell Wallace, Ernst Haeckel, Herbert Spencer, John Fiske, W. H. Rolph, Alfred Barratt, Leslie Stephen, Bartholomäus von Carneri, Harald Hoffding, Georg von Gizycki, Samuel Alexander, and, last but not least, Darwin himself.  Williams cites the books of each that bear on the subject, and most of them have a Wiki page.  Wallace, of course, is occasionally mentioned as the “co-inventor” of the theory of evolution by natural selection with Darwin.  Collectors of historical trivia may be interested to know that Barratt’s work was edited by Carveth Read, who was probably the first to propose a theory of the hunting transition from ape to man.  Leslie Stephen was the father of Virginia Woolf, and Harald Hoffding was the friend and philosophy teacher of Niels Bohr.

    I don’t intend to discuss the work of each of these authors in detail.  However, certain themes are common to most, if not all, of them, and most of them, not to mention Williams himself, still clung to Lamarckism and other outmoded versions of evolution.  It took the world a long time to catch up to Darwin.  For example, in the case of Haeckel,

    Even in the first edition of his Naturliche Schopfungsgeschichte Haeckel makes a distinction between conservative and progressive inheritance, and in the edition of 1889 he still maintains this division against Weismann and others, claiming the heredity of acquired habit under certain circumstances and showing conclusively that even wounds and blemishes received during the life of an individual may be in some instances inherited by descendants.

    For Williams’ own Lamarckism, see chapter 1 of Volume II, in which he seems convinced that Darwin himself believes in inheritance of acquired characteristics, and that Lamarck’s theories are supported by abundant evidence.  We are familiar with an abundance of similar types of “evidence” in our own day.

    More troublesome than these vestiges of earlier theories of evolution are the vestiges of earlier systems of morality.  Every one of the authors cited above has a deep background in the theories of morality concocted by philosophers, both ancient and modern.  In general, they have adopted some version of one of these theories as their own.  As a result, they have a tendency to fit evolution by natural selection into the Procrustean bed of their earlier theories, often as a mere extension of them.  An interesting manifestation of this tendency is the fact that, almost to a man, they believed that evolution promoted the “good of the species.”  For example, quoting Stephen:

    The quality which makes a race survive may not always be a source of advantage to every individual, or even to the average individual.  Since the animal which is better adapted for continuing its species will have an advantage in the struggle even though it may not be so well adapted for pursuing its own happiness, an instinct grows and decays not on account of its effects on the individual, but on account of its effects upon the race.

    The case of Carneri, who happened to be a German, is even more interesting.  Starting with the conclusion that “evolution by natural selection” must inevitably favor the species over the individual,

    Every man has his own ends, and in the attempt to attain his ends, does not hesitate to set himself in opposition to all the rest of mankind.  If he is sufficiently energetic and cunning, he may even succeed for a time in his endeavors to the harm of humanity.  Yet to have the whole of humanity against oneself is to endeavor to proceed in the direction of greater resistance, and the process must sooner or later result in the triumph of the stronger power. In the struggle for existence in its larger as well as its smaller manifestations, the individual seeks with all his power to satisfy the impulse to happiness which arises with conscious existence, while the species as the complex of all energies developed by its parts has an impulse to self preservation of its own.

    It follows, at least for Carneri, that Darwin’s theory is a mere confirmation of utilitarianism:

    The “I” extends itself to an “I” of mankind, so that the individual, in making self his end, comes to make the whole of mankind his end. The ideal cannot be fully realized; the happiness of all cannot be attained; so that there is always choice between two evils, never choice of perfect good, and it is necessary to be content with the greatest good of the greatest number as principle of action.

    which, in turn, leads to a version of morality worthy of Bismarck himself.  As paraphrased by Williams,

    He lays further stress upon the absence of morality, not only among the animals, in whom at least general ethical feelings in distinction from those towards individuals are not found, but also among savages, morality being not the incentive to, but the product of the state.

    Alexander gives what is perhaps the most striking example of this perceived syncretism between Darwinism and pre-existing philosophies, treating it as a mere afterthought to Hegel and Kant:

     Nothing is more striking at the present time than the convergence of different schools of Ethics. English Utilitarianism developing into Evolutional Ethics on the one hand, and the idealism associated with the German philosophy derived from Kant on the other.  The convergence is not of course in mere practical precepts, but in method also. It consists in an objectivity or impartiality of treatment commonly called scientific.  There is also a convergence in general results which consists in a recognition of a kind of proportion between individual and society, expressed by the phrase “organic connection.”  The theory of egoism pure and simple has been long dead.  Utilitarianism succeeded it and enlarged the moral end. Evolution continued the process of enlarging the individual interest, and has given precision to the relation between the individual and the moral law.  But in this it has added nothing new, for Hegel in the early part of the century, gave life to Kant’s formula by treating the law of morality as realized in the society and the state.

    Alexander continues by confirming that he shares a belief common to all the rest as well, in one form or another – in the reality of objective morality:

    The convergence of dissimilar theories affords us some prospect of obtaining a satisfactory statement of the ethical truths towards which they seem to move.

    Gyzicki embraces this version of the naturalistic fallacy even more explicitly:

    Natural selection is therefore a power of judgment, in that it preserves the just and lets the evil perish.  Will this war of the good with the evil always continue?  Or will the perfect kingdom of righteousness one day prevail.  We hope this last but we cannot know certainly.

    There is much more of interest in this book by an indeterminate author.  Of particular note is the section on Alfred Russell Wallace, but I will leave that for a later post.  One might mention as an “extenuating circumstance” for these authors that none of them had the benefit of the scientific community’s belated recognition of the significance of Mendel’s discoveries.  It’s well know that Darwin himself struggled to come up with a logical mechanism to explain how it was possible for natural selection to even happen.  The notions of these moral philosophers on the subject must have been hopelessly vague by comparison.  Their ideas about “evolution for the good of the species” must be seen in that context.  The concocters of the modern “scientific” versions of morality can offer no such excuse.

  • Of Genetic Determinists and Unicorns

    Posted on February 10th, 2014 Helian 3 comments

    There are and have been legions of cultural determinists, that is, people who believe that all human behavior, or all that really matters, is a product of learning, experience, and culture.  For example, a whole gang of them self-identify in that invaluable little fragment of historical source material, Man and Aggression, a collection of essays edited by arch-Blank Slater Ashley Montagu and published back in 1968.  Presumably, genetic determinists are the opposite; those who believe that our behavior is “all in our genes.”  For all I know, such beings may actually exist, or have existed once upon a time.  If so, however, they must be as rare as unicorns, for I have never actually seen one, or even found an artifact of one in the literature.

    We are a diligent species, though, and the search for them goes on.  Those on the quest include the usual suspects among the left over Blank Slaters, “modern” cultural determinists who accept the idea that genes might influence behavior, but react with fury or scorn if anyone dares to suggest a specific example or says anything mildly supportive of evolutionary psychology, and, well, others, people who for one reason or another become queasy at the thought that those nasty little snippets of DNA might be missing with their free will.

    One lucky prospector by the name of Nathaniel Comfort, a professor in the Department of the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins, recently imagined he’d struck pay dirt.  And who can blame him?  He stumbled across an article by Bruce Grierson at the Pacific Standard website entitled, Is the Will to Work Out Genetically Determined?  I must admit that the thought of someone so naïve as to pen such a title in this day and age is, as one of Evelyn Waugh’s “bright young things” might have put it, terribly shy-making.  It’s something like watching a politician from the sticks guilelessly telling an ethnic joke in his first speech on the floor of Congress.  However, if you actually read the article, it’s clear enough Grierson isn’t the real thing.  For example, he writes,

    There’s increasing evidence that the will to work out is partly genetically determined.

    Well, if the will to work out is “partly” genetically determined, then it must be “partly” culturally determined as well.  In other words, while Grierson did commit the sin of using the naughty word “determined,” he can’t really be a “genetic determinist” unless he’s also a “cultural determinist” at the same time.  If you actually read the article, you’ll find that Grierson is actually a freelance writer who’s just written an inspirational book, entitled What Makes Olga Run, about Olga Kotelko, a 94-year old athlete whose favorite pastime is working out.  Olga also appears in his article, along with the speculation that her DNA might have something to do with her affinity for staying in shape.  Such speculation might have been “out there” among the more puritanical Blank Slaters of the 1960’s, but wouldn’t raise many eyebrows today.

    However, for whatever reason, Prof. Comfort saw red when the phrase “genetically determined” popped up on his radar screen, for all the world as if he were one of the hoary Blank Slaters of yore.  I doubt that he actually is one, because his writing lacks that faint, characteristic stench of Marxism.  For all that, he struck a pious pose that would have done any of them proud, and proceeded to scribble a fiery denunciation of the evil “genetic determinist” on his Genotopia website, sporting the sanctimonious title, Genetic Determinism:  Why We Never Learn – and Why it Matters.  With a stern shake of the head he writes,

    What’s troubling here is the genetic determinism… Reducing a complex behavior to a single gene gives us blinders:  it tends to turn social problems into molecular ones.

    Untroubled by the fact that nowhere in his article does Grierson come anywhere near “reducing a complex behavior to a single gene,” he charges on to accuse him of guilt by association with the popular science writers who coined the term “warrior gene,” referring to an allele of the monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) gene.  That gene, which is associated with the breakdown of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, is indeed responsible for increased levels of aggression in response to provocation, according to several papers that have appeared in the literature over the years.  I read a couple of the ones most often cited, and both of them emphasized the prominent role of environment in moderating the influence of the gene.  Neither of them makes the claim that the gene “determines” behavior, or anything close to it.  Many other papers on the subject are referenced at the Wiki page on the gene, in case the interested reader wants to go searching for a stray genetic determinist on his own.  Ignoring the actual content of these papers, Comfort thunders on,

    The best science writers understand and even write about how to avoid determinist language.  In 2010, Ed Yong wrote an excellent analysis of how, in the 1990’s, the monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) gene became mis- and oversold as “the warrior gene.”  What’s wrong with a little harmless sensationalism?  Plenty, says Yong.  First, catchy names like “warrior gene” are bound to be misleading.  They are ways of grabbing the audience, not describing the science, so they oversimplify and distort in a lazy effort to connect with a scientifically unsophisticated audience.  Second, there is no such thing as a “gene for” anything interesting.  Nature and nurture are inextricable.

    As far as the “best science writers” are concerned, you can say that again.  They’re well aware by now of the vigilance of the pathologically pious among us for any language that might justify a delicious rant about “determinism.”  As for admonishing popular science writers to stop writing catchy headlines, good luck with that.  Beyond that, of course, is the stubborn fact that neither Grierson nor the authors of the MAOA papers ever claimed that “nature and nurture are extricable.”

    More troubling is Comfort’s insistence that there is no such thing as a “gene for” anything interesting.  If I were a pedant, I could come up with all kinds of good-sounding reasons for denouncing people who use the term “gene for.”  However, it would be at the expense of deliberately blinding myself and my readers to some important facts about evolution.  Allow me to quote from Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene at length on the subject:

    For the purposes of argument it will be necessary to speculate about genes ‘for’ doing all sorts of improbable things.  If I speak, for example, of a hypothetical gene ‘for saving companions from drowning’, and you find such a concept incredible, remember the story of the hygienic bees.  Recall that we are not talking about the gene as the sole antecedent cause of all the complex muscular contractions, sensory integrations, and even conscious decisions, that are involved in saving somebody from drowning.  We are saying nothing about the question of whether learning, experience, or environmental influences enter into the development of the behavior.  All you have to concede is that it is possible for a single gene, other things being equal and lots of other essential genes and environmental factors being present, to make a body more likely to save somebody from drowning than its allele would.  The difference between the two genes may turn out at bottom to be a slight difference in some simple quantitative variable.  The details of the embryonic developmental process, interesting as they may be, are irrelevant to evolutionary considerations.

    That is, at least in my experience, the sense in which the term “gene for” is normally used.  One wonders what on earth Comfort is thinking when he claims that “there is no such thing as a ‘gene for’ anything interesting.”  If that’s true, how was it possible for evolution to happen?  Did cosmic rays set off sprays of ionizing radiation that just happened to hit whole gene complexes in just the right places, all at the same time?

    But Comfort isn’t through with the unsuspecting Grierson yet.  It turns out he is also a villain for daring to suggest that some pill might be invented to channel dangerous drug and other addictions into a “good” addiction to working out.  Comfort pontificates that Grierson’s fall from a state of grace into such potentially mortal sins is the entirely predictable result of sliding down the slippery slope from the original sin of “determinism.”  I’m no partisan of the pharmaceutical companies myself, but this strikes me as a bit overwrought.

    What can I say, other to inform Prof. Comfort that the glittering trinket he dug up is actually fool’s gold?  On the other hand, I personally would be willing to part with a quarter at a circus side show to see a genuine genetic determinist if one is ever actually discovered.  If the truth be told, though, I would rather see a unicorn.

  • So What Does Evolved Morality have to do with Banks?

    Posted on March 26th, 2013 Helian 3 comments

    New Scientist just published an article by anthropologist Christopher Boehm entitled, “Banks gone bad: Our evolved morality has failed us.”  According to Boehm,

    In their rudimentary, hunter-gatherer forms, crime and punishment surely go back for tens of millennia. The case has been made that by 45,000 years ago, or possibly earlier, people were practising moralistic social control much as we do.

    Without exception, foraging groups that still exist today and best reflect this ancient way of life exert aggressive surveillance over their peers for the good of the group. Economic miscreants are mainly bullies who use threats or force to benefit themselves, along with thieves and cheats.

    All are free-riders who take without giving, and all are punished by the group. This can range from mere criticism or ostracism to active shaming, ejection or even capital punishment. This moral behaviour was reinforced over the millennia that such egalitarian bands dominated human life.

    Then around 12,000 years ago, larger, still-egalitarian sedentary tribes arrived with greater needs for centralised control. Eventually clusters of tribes formed authoritative chiefdoms. Next came early civilisations, with centrally prescribed and powerfully enforced moral orders. One thing tied these and modern, state-based moral systems to what came before and that was the human capacity for moral indignation. It remains strong today.

    However, something has gone terribly wrong.  International bankers are looting financial institutions and getting away with it.  As Boehm puts it,

    What is beyond debate is that in the case of major corporate crimes an ancient approach to making justice serve the greater good is creaking and groaning, and that new answers must be sought.

    I would be the first to agree that evolved traits are the ultimate cause of all moral behavior.  My question to Boehm and others who think like him is, why on earth, under the circumstances, would he expect human morality to be in any way relevant to the international banking system?  There is no explanation whatsoever for moral behavior other than the fact that the genes responsible for it happened to promote the survival and reproduction of individuals at times when, presumably, there were no international bankers, nor anything like them.  Certainly, we must account for human nature, including morality, if we want to successfully pursue social goals, as the Communists, among others, discovered the hard way.  However, the presumption that our morality will necessarily be useful in regulating the banking system is ludicrous.  If a reasonable case can be made that the behavior of those who control the banking system is diminishing the wealth and welfare of the rest of us, or that, given human nature, it must inevitably be perceived as so unfair as to cause serious social disruption, let those who think so unite and work to change the system.  However, let us drop the ancient charade that they are in any objective sense morally superior to those they seek to control.

    Boehm continues,

    Modern democracies are quite similar to egalitarian hunting bands in that moralistic public opinion helps to protect populaces against social predation, and dictates much of social policy.

    It is certainly true that moral emotions dictate much of social policy.  The policy of continuing to allow them to do so in situations irrelevant to the reasons they evolved in the first place is becoming increasingly disastrous.  Have we really learned nothing from the misery and mass slaughter we suffered at the hands of those two great morally inspired ideologies of the 20th century, Nazism and Communism?  Do we really want to continue repeating those experiences?  Moralistic behavior may well have evolved to protect populaces against social predation.  However, there is not the slightest guarantee that it will continue to do so in situations radically different from those in which that evolution took place.  Boehm’s article, along with the vast majority of modern literature on the subject, emphasizes the “altruistic” aspects of morality.  And like them, it overlooks a fundamental aspect of human morality that has never, ever been missing in any moral system; the outgroup.  There is no Good without Evil.  Consider the behavior of the most “pious” and “virtuous” among us.  Do they spend their time preaching the virtues of tolerance and conciliation?  Hardly!  One commonly finds them furiously denouncing the outgroup, be it the 1%, the greedy bankers, the bourgeoisie, the grasping corporations, the Jews, the heretics, etc., etc., etc.

    I would be the last one to claim such behavior is objectively evil, although it certainly arouses my moral emotions.  I am, after all, human too.  However, I would prefer living in a peaceful world in which I didn’t constantly have to worry about ending up in someone’s outgroup, and therefore, along with my family and others like me, being “liquidated as a class,” as Stalin so charmingly put it.  What’s that you say?  It can’t happen here?  You have a very short historical memory!  By all means, let us regulate the bankers if our frail intelligence informs us that doing so would be reasonable and socially useful.  However, let’s leave morality out of it.  Our evolved morality hasn’t “failed us.”  Our failure lies in refusing to understand morality’s limits.

  • Whither Morality?

    Posted on January 11th, 2013 Helian No comments

    Morality evolved!  One can quibble about the precise meaning of those two words, but the sentence remains true regardless.  Absent genetically programmed and heritable physical characteristics of the human brain, morality as commonly understood would not exist.  It follows that good and evil have no existence other than as subjective impressions in the minds of individuals.

    So much is obvious.  It will become increasingly obvious as long as researchers remain free to study that incredibly complex biological computer, the brain, and the genetic processes that bring it into existence.  So much is, however, also inconvenient.  It is our nature to derive a great deal of pleasure from self-righteousness and virtuous indignation.  However, if good and evil do not exist as independent objects, the rational bases for self-righteousness and virtuous indignation, or, as Jonathan Haidt put it, the rational tail that wags the emotional dog, disappear.  They remain interesting and worthy of study as emotional phenomena.  However, the notion that they actually have some genuine rational justification becomes absurd.

    Similarly, if there are no good and evil objects, the bases for the claims of hosts of philosophers, theologians, and assorted experts on morality of every stripe that they understand those objects better than the rest of us evaporate as well.  As a result, as has so often happened with such inconvenient truths in the past, this one faces and will continue to face bitter opposition from those who, for the reasons alluded to above, prefer an alternate version of reality.  Like the Blank Slaters of old who denied human nature because it relegated all their fine utopias to the scrap heap, they can be relied on to resist and obfuscate our efforts to gain understanding of the physical, emotional and genetic bases of morality.  They realize perfectly well that such understanding renders them superfluous.  Recently, their efforts to stem the tide of increasing knowledge have met with a distinct lack of success, even in academia.  One must hope they will remain similarly ineffectual in the future, or at least one must hope so to the extent that one believes that an accurate understanding of ourselves will have some bearing on our future survival.

    That belief has not always found ready acceptance, even among very intelligent people.  For example, a great number of thinkers who doubted the truths of established religion themselves have objected to passing the word on to the “rabble,” fearing that, lacking a reason to be “good,” they would certainly embrace “evil.”  Similarly, in our own day, many shrink from rejecting a transcendent Good-in-itself because they fear it will promote amorality and moral relativism.  In fact, accepting the truth about morality will not result in amorality or moral relativism because it is not our nature to be amoral or morally relativistic.  We are no more likely to change our moral nature than we are to sprout fins and take to the water, or return to walking on all fours, in response to learning the truth about what that moral nature really is, and how it came into being.

    That is not to imply that such self-understanding will be useless.  For example, it may occur to us to shape a morality that is simple, in harmony with our nature, and that promotes our happiness and discourages us from harming each other as effectively as possible.   It may also occur to us to limit morality to spheres in which it can reasonably be expected to promote useful ends.  Given the fact that morality is fundamentally an emotional rather than a rational phenomenon, it is unlikely those spheres to which our frail reason might better be applied, such as national politics, international relations, and other aspects of our current reality that didn’t exist when morality evolved, will be included.  This remains true even though attempts to apply reason to such spheres without taking the moral nature, not to mention the other behavioral characteristics of our species into account are bound to fail.  For example, the creation of laws that injure the average individual’s sense of justice will likely be useless, regardless of how reasonable they might seem to be on other grounds.

    Having accepted the origins of morality, let us not shrink from accepting its reality as well.  In particular, we should not pretend that it is invariably our nature to be “nice,” and that all “non-niceness” derives exclusively from culture and environment.  Just as it is our nature to belong to and seek acceptance by our ingroup, it is also our nature to hate and despise outgroups.  It is not possible to suppress or stifle that aspect of our nature.  We will always seek and find an outgroup.  Consider the behavior of the very liberals and progressives who occasionally suggest chimerical schemes such as expanding our ingroup to include all mankind.  Nothing could exceed the spite and fury of their denunciations of those who disagree with them, such as gun rights advocates, Christian fundamentalists, opponents of gay marriage, etc.  The outgroup have ye always with you.  Our goal should be to stop ignoring this truth, in spite of the fact that all human history is a testament to it, and in spite of the further fact that it is such an obvious explanation for so much about us that otherwise seems incomprehensible, and seek ways of dealing with it so as to minimize the mayhem it has so frequently caused in the past.

  • Piltdown Man and the Delusions of Grafton Elliot Smith

    Posted on December 3rd, 2012 Helian No comments

    According to the frontispiece of his The Evolution of Man, published in 1924, Grafton Elliot Smith held the titles of M.A., M.D., Litt. D., D.Sc., F.R.C.P., F.R.S., and Professor of Anatomy at the University of London.  If titles and academic honors are any guide, he must have been a very intelligent man.  He was well aware of the limitations of human intelligence, and wary of the influence of the emotions on judgments of fact.  For example, in the book referred to above, from which all the following quotes are taken as well, he wrote,

    The range of true judgment is in fact extremely limited in the vast majority of human beings.  Emotions and the unconscious influence of the environment in which an individual has grown up play an enormous part in all his decisions, even though he may give a rational explanation of the motives for many of his actions without realizing that they were inspired by causes utterly alien to those which he has given – and given without any intention of dishonesty – in explanation of them.  It is the exception rather than the rule for men to accept new theories on evidence that appeals to reason alone.  The emotional factor usually expresses itself in an egotistical form.  The ‘will to believe’ can often be induced by persuading a man that he discovered the new theory of his own initiative.

    No one could have written a better post mortem for Smith’s career.  When it came to questions that really mattered about the evolution of man, he had a positive penchant for getting it wrong.  Regarding the issue of whether erect posture or a large brain came first in the transition from ape to man, he noted in passing,

    The case for the erect attitude was ably put by Dr. Munro (Neil Gordon Munro, better known for his studies of the Japanese Ainu, ed.) in 1893.  He argued that the liberation of the hands and the cultivation of their skill lay at the root of Man’s mental supremacy.

    Smith would have done well to listen to Munro, not to mention Charles Darwin and Ernst Haeckel, both of whom proposed similar, “bipedalism before large brain” theories.  However, he would have none of it, writing,

    It was not the adoption of the erect attitude that made Man from an Ape, but the gradual perfecting of the brain and the slow upbuilding of the mental structure, of which erectness of carriage is one of the incidental manifestations.

    Noting that the above quote was included in the substance of an address to the British Association delivered in the autumn of 1912, he rejoiced in a latter chapter that his conjecture had been followed almost immediately by a “dramatic confirmation”:

    Within the month after its delivery a dramatic confirmation was provided of the argument that in the evolution of Man the brain led the way.  For the late Mr. Charles Dawson (in association with Dr. – now Sir Arthur – Smith Woodward) brought to light in Sussex the remains of a hirtherto unknown type of Primate with a brain that, so far as size is concerned, came within the range of human variation, being more than 200 c.cm. larger than that of the more ancient and primitive member of the Human Family (Pithecanthropus), in association with a jaw so like that of a Chimpanzee that many of the leading palaeontologists believed it to be actually the remains of that Ape.

    This, of course, was the famous Piltdown Man, probably the most damaging scientific forgery of all times, proved in 1953 to be a composite of a medieval human skull and the jaw of an orangutan.  It was probably fabricated by Dawson himself, who had a knack for making similar “sensational” finds, and whose antiquarian collection was found to include at least 38 specimens that were “clear fakes” after his death.  Ironically, its discovery induced just such a “will to believe” in Smith as he had warned his readers about earlier in the book.  He rationalized the “genuineness” of Piltdown Man with arguments that were formidably “scientific” and astoundingly intricate.  For example,

    When the skull is restored in this way (according to an intricate reconstruction process described earlier, ed.) its conformation is quite distinctive, and differs profoundly from all other human skulls, recent or fossil.  The parietal bone exhibits a peculiar depression between the diverging temporal lines, and the lower margin of the bone, below the depression, is everted.  This creates a peculiarity in the form of the cranium that is found in the Gorilla and Chimpanzee.  But the simian resemblances are revealed most strikingly in a transverse section of the reconstructed Piltdown Skull, when compared with corresponding sections of those of a Chimpanzee, a Gorilla, and a modern European.  It will then be realized how much more nearly the Piltdown skull approaches the simian type.  The general form of the cranium in transverse section is greatly expanded like that of an Ape.  This applies particularly to the contour of the parietal bones.  But the construction of the temporal bone is even more strikingly Ape-like in character.

    …and so on.  One can but feel a painful and vicarious sense of shame for the worthy professor, who had so thoroughly succeeded in hoodwinking himself.  Unfortunately, his weighty testimony hoodwinked many others as well, eventually including even Sir Arthur Keith, who had immediately smelled a rat and publicly cast doubt on the discovery, only to later accept the forgery as real against his better judgment with the help of Smith’s “coaching.”

    Piltdown Man wasn’t the only sensational discovery of the day.  Raymond Dart had also discovered the first specimen of Australopithecus Africanus in the same year as Smith’s book was published.  Dart had immediately noticed evidence of the creature’s upright posture, but Smith would have none of it:

    But there is no evidence to suggest that its posture differed from that of the Chimpanzee.  The peculiarity in the position of the foramen magnum – which Professor Dart assumed to afford further corroboration of its human affinity – is merely an infantile trait that is found equally in other young Anthropoids.

    Poor old Dart.  He was always being “debunked” for being right.  He was similarly “set straight” by his peers for suggesting that early man engaged in anything so unsavory and politically incorrect as hunting live game.  Next it was the turn of Neanderthal Man.  To add insult to the injury of his recent extinction, Smith’s unflattering description spawned a myriad museum displays of a stooped, bestial creature, seemingly unattractive as a sex partner except to the most desperate:

    His short, thick-set, and coarsely built body was carried in a half-stooping slouch upon short, powerful, and half-flexed legs of peculiarly ungraceful form.  His thick neck sloped forward from the broad shoulders to support the massive flattened head, which protruded forward, so as to form an unbroken curve of neck and back, in place of the alternation of curves which is one of the graces of the truly erect Homo sapiens.

    In a word, Professor Smith left us with a wealth of disinformation that it took decades of careful research to correct.  His example should teach us humility.  His book and a few others like it should be required reading for nascent Ph.D.’s.  Many of them will find little time for such ephemera later on in their struggles to stay up to speed with all the latest in the collection of learned journals that pertain to their specialty.  Still, they might find it amusing and even informative to occasionally step back from the information maelstrom, dust off some of the old books and journals in forgotten stacks, and recall the foibles as well as the triumphs of their compatriots gone before.  In ambling through the old source material, they’re likely to find that the history they find on the Internet isn’t always served straight up.  As is regrettably the case with Prof. Smith, it often happens that some of the more egregious warts and blemishes have been charitably removed.  They are likely to find the unexpurgated versions more helpful, especially if they happen to specialize in fields that are long on unfalsifiable theories and short on repeatable experiments.

    Grafton Elliot Smith