Richard Joyce and the Legitimacy of Morality

Morality is the expression, moderated by culture, of predispositions that are hardwired in our brains. Like everything else about us, they evolved because, at the time they evolved, they increased our chances of survival. One could cite many plausible reasons that may have contributed to the evolution of moral brains. Given limited resources, an unconstrained battle of all against all to secure a maximum share for each individual would likely have been a poor survival strategy, particularly at a time when our rapidly evolving brains were giving us the capacity to develop increasingly lethal weapons.

Morality is what it is. It is an expression of a reality that will not change because we think we need it to be something else. It is an evolved survival mechanism. As such, it can have no intrinsic legitimacy, yet we are wired to perceive morality as having a real, objective existence, outside our brains. In a word, we perceive it as an absolute. We perceive it in that way because, presumably, that’s the way it has been most effective in promoting our survival.

The evolutionary origins of morality, as of the rest of our intrinsic nature as a species, are becoming increasingly difficult to deny. We can now pinpoint the very neurons that fire in response to situations that have a strong moral context. Books accepting this fundamental premise are beginning to appear in increasing numbers. For example, “How we Decide,” by Jonah Lehrer, which I discussed in an earlier post, has an excellent chapter entitled, “The Moral Mind.” Some of the most interesting works are emanating from the corner of the philosophers.

One of the great goals of the philosophers has always been to establish reasons for the legitimacy of morality, to give it “clout,” in the form a a claim to the right to demand universal compliance with its rules. To the extent that this remains one of their goals, the philosophers have been like dead men walking ever since the days of Darwin, hit between the eyes by his Theory, but charging ahead, nevertheless, on shear momentum. Should you care to read an account of some of their more recent intellectual contortions, allow me to suggest “The Evolution of Morality,” by Richard Joyce. You should find it fascinating.

Joyce is an intelligent and thoughtful writer who, unfortunately, shares some of the philosophers’ penchant for obscure language and hair splitting ratiocination.  His book is, neverthess, a great deal more comprehensible than, say, one of Kant’s tomes, and should be intelligible to the layman.  It exposes some of the more childish rationalizations of moral legitimacy by the author’s colleagues.  Unfortunately, however, Joyce can’t quite bring himself to give up the great quest himself.  Philosophers have always been in love with the idea that our superior reasoning abilities make us not only quantitatively, but qualitatively different from the other animals, and Joyce is no exception.  I have no doubt that, assuming that research can continue as freely as it has in the past, numerous similarities will be found between the processes associated with morality in our own brains and in other intelligent animals.  Joyce overcomes this difficulty by carefully defining morality in such a way that it becomes impossible for creatures lacking the capacity for speech to be moral beings, as if the structures and phenomena in the brain responsible for morality cared one way or the other about his definitions. 

Once he has safely removed the rest of the animal kingdom to the other side of the language divide, Joyce frees himself to consider morality as a “belief,” similar to the belief in a God.  He examines the case for granting morality the status of an object, of a thing in itself, independent of any evolutionary origins.  Running through several of the arguments in favor of such a transcendental morality, he rejects them all in turn.  In his final chapter, he reveals himself to us as what he refers to as a moral skeptic of the “agnostic,” as opposed to the “atheistic” variety.  By this, he means that he can find no epistemically justified basis for moral judgments, but does not, therefore, conclude that such a basis for claiming that moral judgments are “true” does not exist.  Here, it seems to me, Prof. Joyce is allowing himself a bit of silliness.

I say that for two reasons.  In the first place, the author has done an excellent job of demolishing the basis for any remaining agnosticism regarding moral “beliefs” in his book.  In the second, I meant what I said above about him being intelligent.  I did not mean to condescend by making that claim, but simply to state my opinion.  It seems to me he is too smart to be a moral agnostic.  There is ample basis for that conclusion in his final chapter, where we find nuggets such as,

If biological natural selection is responsible for giving us a moral sensibility in the first place, then without it we would be in no position to give consideration to “the ethical progress of society.” (with reference to some remarks by Thomas Huxley).

But acknowledging beliefs under the influence of natural selection raises epistemological concerns, for the faithful representation of reality is of only contingent instrumental value when reproductive success is the touchstone, forcing us to acknowledge that if in certain domains false beliefs will bring more offspring then that is the route natural selection will take every time. Moral thinking could very well be such a domain.

Thus, that moral skepticism may seem to many obviously false and pernicious is exactly what the moral skeptic predicts, and therefore cannot be employed as a consideration against the view. To do nothing more than point with a sense of appalled outrage at the conclusions of the moral skeptic is merely to beg the question, and thus is no argumentative consideration at all.

and the last sentence in his book;

If uncomfortable truths are out there, we should seek them and face them like intellectual adults, rather than eschewing open-minded inquiry or fabricating philosophical theories whose only virtue is the promise of providing the soothing news that all our heartfelt beliefs are true.

I won’t go into the reasons why I think that comments like those above are evidence of an unusually perceptive mind.  Suffice it to say that I do.  They also make it clear that Joyce is much closer to being a moral “atheist” than he would have us believe.  If he wants to go on maintaining that he can’t exclude the equivalent of the fairies in Richard Dawkins garden, than so be it.  What he has written above makes it clear that, nevertheless, he sees the handwriting on the wall when it comes to “objective morality.”

I suspect the reason that Joyce can’t quite free himself of his agnosticism may well have something to do with his own “human nature.”  Like all the rest of us, including, by the way, such atheist worthies as Richard Dawkins, Chris Hitchens, and Sam Harris, he experiences morality as a real, absolute thing.  From an evolutionary point of view, that was the most efficient way for nature to “design” it.  That Joyce’ rational mind has not quite freed itself from the grip of this perceived absolute is evident from comments such as,

Natural selection doesn’t deserve the bad rap given it by Huxley and Williams. It is a process that has made us sociable, able to enter into cooperative exchanges, capable of love, empathy, and altruism – granting us the capacity to take a direct interest in the welfare of others with no thought of reciprocation. (With the implication that all these things are “really” good.)

and

But even if this is not so, the only honest and dignified course is to acknowledge what the evidence and our best theorizing indicate… (A senseless statement unless honesty and dignity are objective moral goods).

and so on.  In fact, we are moral beings.  None of us can live outside of our own moral skins, myself included.  Our brains are wired to perceive moral rules as absolutes.  Assuming, however, that we wish to survive (and that, after all, is the one and only reason morality exists in the first place), it would behoove us to understand its real nature, in order to moderate our “moral” behavior with reason.

“Guns, Germs and Steel” and Ideological Orthodoxy

As I mentioned in earlier posts, we have just witnessed a remarkable transformation in the “accepted wisdom” regarding the innate in human nature. The politically correct orthodoxies of the “progressive left,” according to which human nature is, essentially, a cultural trait, and “not in our genes,” have been smashed by the progress of science. In the last few decades we have gained the ability to peer deep inside the brain. Karl Marx would have been deeply disappointed by what we have found. The “new Soviet man” has been relegated to the realm of fantasy once and for all, and common sense has prevailed. We have established beyond reasonable doubt that fundamental aspects of our nature are hard-wired in our brains. This is no time to rest on our laurels, though. We are hardly out of the woods yet. The ideological orthodoxies of the left are still the “ground state” in academia and the social sciences. They will continue to prevail whenever they can’t be decisively refuted by repeatable experiments.

Consider, for example, the book “Guns, Germs and Steel,” by Jared Diamond. Wikipedia sums it up for us:

The book attempts to explain why Eurasian civilizations, as a whole, have survived and conquered others, while attempting to refute the belief that Eurasian hegemony is due to any form of Eurasian intellectual, moral, or inherent genetic superiority. Diamond argues that the gaps in power and technology between human societies originate in environmental differences, which are amplified by various positive feedback loops. When cultural or genetic differences have favored Eurasians (for example Chinese centralized government, or improved disease resistance among Eurasians), these advantages were only created due to the influence of geography and were not inherent in the Eurasian genomes.

In a word, we are dealing here with the orthodoxy that there are no substantial genetic differences between human populations, or at least none that would, in the view of the ideologically pure, give one population an “unfair advantage” over another.  Common sense would seem to dictate that evolution hasn’t come to a dead halt in human populations that have been widely separated and, to some degree, isolated for upwards of 50,000 years.  Indeed, common sense prevails when it comes to “fair” advantages, such as skin color, or lactose tolerance.  When it comes to “unfair” advantages, such as that nebulous thing we call “intelligence,” however, evolution and common sense must give way.  When it comes to intelligence, all human populations are perfectly, undeviatingly equal, and have been since the emergence of the species, although Diamond does make a tongue in cheek reference to the intellectual inferiority of white people in his book.  As connoiseurs of political correctness are, no doubt, aware, such drolleries are permitted.  Other than that, however, absolute equality prevails.  If an Einstein dies in one population, it does not become “unequal.”  No, my friends, at the very instant of his death, a new genius is born, and perfect equality triumphantly prevails once again.

Far be it for me to dare to contradict one jot or tittle of Professor Diamond’s book. I merely point out that what it contains is not science. Rather, it is, in essence an ideological tract. How do we know this? Because every one of Professor Diamonds “discoveries” is perfectly predictable in advance. Once one has read a few chapters of his book, one can tell what he will “discover” in the rest of it without taking the trouble to read it.  You will smell no Lollard here.  Professor Diamond has lived, and will surely die, in the odor of sanctity.  No ideological heresies will befoul his memory.  Everything he has written, and everything he will write, will conform, in all purity, to his ideological worldview.

Well, in theory, some ideological verities might actually be true in fact.  However, we have just seen some very significant ones demolished by a mountain of evidence before our eyes.   Let us refrain from recklessly poking sticks into the hornet’s nests of academia.  Let us merely insist that no impediments be tolerated in the path to increasing human knowledge.  As long as we are free to question and learn, the truth will prevail in the end.

You should Decide to Read this Book: “How We Decide,” by Jonah Lehrer

I find some of the books that are being published these days mind-boggling. “How We Decide,” by Jonah Lehrer, is one of them. Perhaps it’s not really the book that’s mind-boggling, fascinating as it is. What’s really astounding is the public reception it’s received. Consider, for example, its review in the New York Times. It’s positive, even enthusiastic, cites a few interesting tidbits from the book, and then closes with some suggestions about questions Lehrer might take up in future works. The astounding thing is that there is no allusion whatsoever to matters of political correctness, no suggestion that the author is a minion of fascism, no dark hints that his conclusions border on racism, and no tut-tutting about his general lack of moral uprightness.

All this is mind-boggling because it attests to a sea change in public attitudes, to a transformational change in the way certain seemingly obvious truths are received. Changes like that don’t happen over years. It takes decades, and I suspect you have to be around for decades yourself to notice them. Underlying every anecdote, every example, and every assertion in the book is the tacit assumption that our behavior, outside of such fundamental traits as hunger and sexual desire, is not just an artifact of our environment, a reflection of our culture, imprinted on minds of almost unlimited malleability. Rather, its underlying theme is that much of our behavior is conditioned by innate characteristics hard-wired in the circuitry of our brains. Forty or fifty years ago, many books with a similar theme were published by the likes of Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and Robert Ardrey. Inevitably, whenever a new one turned up, secular religious fanatics of the Marxist and related schools began frothing at the mouth. Their authors were demonized and denounced as perpetrators of every sort of evil and immorality. Any suggestion that certain aspects of human nature were innate posed a threat to their plans to create an earthly paradise for us, and then “re-educate” us to like it. In a word, it threatened the whole concept of the “New Soviet Man.” They became just as furious as any fundamentalist Christian at the suggestion that the earth is more than 7,000 years old. Richard Dawkins has done a particularly able job of dissecting one of the literary artifacts of this school of thought, “Not in our Genes,” by R. Lewontin, et. al., demonstrating his virtuosity at dissecting secular as well as traditional religions.

Secular religions have certain disadvantages not shared by the more traditional, “spiritual” varieties. For example, they promise heaven in this life instead of the next, and so are subject to fact-checking. The history of the Soviet Union is a case in point. They are also more vulnerable to demonstrable scientific facts, because they cannot point to a superhuman authority with the power to veto common sense, and they typically claim to be “scientific” themselves. All of these have contributed to the sea change in attitudes I refer to, but I suspect the great scientific advances of recent years in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology have played the most decisive role. Many of those advances have been enabled by sophisticated scanning devices, with which we can now peer deep into the brain and watch its workings in real time down to the molecular level. Lehrer cites many examples in his book. The facts are there, in the form of repeatable experiments. Lehrer cites the evidence, treating the innate in human behavior, not as a heresy, but as a commonplace, obvious on the face of it. I can but wonder at how rapidly the transformation has taken place.

“How We Decide” is a pleasure to read, and it will surely make you think. I found the chapter on “The Moral Mind” particularly interesting. Among other things, it demonstrates the absurdity of the misperception, shared by so many otherwise highly intelligent people from ancient to modern times, that we will not act morally unless we have some rational reason for doing so, such as the dictates of a God, or the systems of philosophers. As Lehrer puts it,

Religious believers assume that God invented the moral code. It was given to Moses on Mount Sinai, a list of imperatives inscribed in stone. (As Dostoyevsky put it, “If there is no God, then we are lost in a moral chaos. Everything is permitted.”) But this cultural narrative gets the causality backward. Moral emotions existed long before Moses.

Lehrer also cites some of the many great thinkers who have, throughout our history, drawn attention to the remarkable similarities in our moral behavior that transcend culture, and came to the common conclusion that there was something innate about morality. For example, quoting from the book,

Although (Adam) Smith is best known for his economic treatise “The Wealth of Nations,” he was most proud of “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” his sprawling investigation into the psychology of morality. Like his friend David Hume, Smith was convinced that our moral decisions were shaped by our emotional instincts. People were good for essentially irrational reasons.

What Smith and Hume couldn’t know was how morality is innate, or why. Now, as Lehrer shows us, we are finally beginning to find out.

Do yourself a favor and read the book.

Of Human Nature and Political Games

In my last post I noted with some gratification that phenomena as obvious as the influence of innate predispositions on human behavior are finally being accepted, in the popular media and elsewhere, as obvious, whereas 40 or 50 years ago they would have been furiously attacked as evidence of racism, fascism, or some similar social malady. In those days, such attacks came mainly from the left, with emphasis on the Marxist left. Well, hold on to your hats, dear readers, because it appears that we’re not quite out of the woods yet. Now it appears that the political right is turning its baleful glance on evolutionary psychology, and discovering that it is a font of nefarious schemes to subvert free will and human virtue.

We begin this story with an article that appeared on NPR’s website. It discussed the ideas of Washington Post science writer Shankar Vedantam regarding the interactions of the conscious and unconscious mind as set forth in his new book entitled “The Hidden Brain.” I have no certain knowledge regarding Mr. Vedantam’s political leanings, but, considering the fact that NPR has deigned to discuss his book and he writes for the Washington Post, I suspect that he probably stands rather to the left of Rush Limbaugh. Now, given the unfortunate history of attacks on proponents of innate predispositions by assorted Defenders of the Faith on the left, one would think that Mr. Vedantam’s embrace of evolutionary psychology would be grounds for loud huzzahs all ’round. For example, according to the NPR article, he notes the importance of innate aspects of human behavior in the development of social maladies such as racism, citing research from a day-care center in Montreal that found that children as young as 3 linked white faces with positive attributes and black faces with negative attributes. All this seems harmless and commonplace enough. All Vedantam is really saying is that there is such a thing as an Amity/Enmity Complex, that it can manifest itself as racism, and that, if we are to control such socially destructive behavior, it would behoove us to understand what causes it.  Fifty years ago, he would have been loudly denounced as a heretic by the High Priests on the left for stating such obvious truisms.  Today, we hear barely a whimper from that direction, but, alas, the time for rejoicing has not yet come.  It appears that the right has now discovered, in its turn, that evolutionary psychology is really a nefarious plot against mankind.

I cite as exhibit A an article written by Jeff G. at Protein Wisdom.  Instead of rejoicing at the return of the Prodigal Son from the left, it seems he has smelled a rat.  Mr. Vedantam, it appears, is not really a benign science writer for the Wapo, but a myrmidon of the left, a mere tool in a broader plot to seize control of our minds and reprogram us into latter day versions of Homo Sovieticus.  Let’s allow Jeff G. to set the tone.  Referring to the Montreal study, he says,

Of course, were the data reversed (had, for instance, the day-care center under review been located in the basement of Reverend Wright’s church, say) — with whites linked to negative attributes and blacks viewed positively — that data almost certainly wouldn’t be extrapolated out as normative the way it is here. In fact, such data would likely be used to exhort the force of identify politics to “empower” historically disenfranchised groups, the result being that we must now believe that identity politics is simultaneously ameliorative (when it empowers certain identity groups) and “racist” (when it empowers other identity groups), even as the mechanism is precisely the same.

Here Jeff G. invents the first in a series of strawmen, attacking Mr. Vedantam for what he “almost certainly” would have done if the racial shoe had been on the other foot.  Apparently, he is unaware of the absurdity of attacking someone for a misdeed they haven’t actually committed, but which he has concluded they would have committed in some hypothetical alternate reality.  Continuing with the article,

And here you have the last two maneuvers: 1) It is silly to call children as young as 3 bigots, Vedantam will (pretend to) concede; and yet they are showing bigoted behavior — like, for instance, they draw “bigoted associations” or make “racist statements” — which transgressions Vedantam will trace to “culture and upbringing”. Are these children responsible for their own culture? Their own upbringing? Of course not, the argument will suggest. And so their bigotry, which is undeniable (given the “associations” drawn by the kids in one Montreal day-care center) must come from somewhere else, and must be lodged somewhere outside of the conscious reach of these children (where presumably it could be corrected).

Certainly culture plays a role in determining whether we perceive specific racial characteristics in a positive or negative light, but where, exactly, does Mr. Vedantam imply that these associations are “lodged somewhere outside of our conscious reach?”  The logical process by which Jeff G. arrives at the conclusion that this “must be” is beyond me.

Once we are here — once we begin to give power to deeply-seeded attitudes learned through acculturation and rote indoctrination (and buried deep in our “sub-conscious”) while simultaneously divorcing the conscious mind from the unconscious mind in such a way that the unconscious mind is no longer a part of the intentional “we” — it is an easy next step to argue 2) that “we” are not responsible for any kind of unconscious racism or bigotry; thus, we can say racist things, or make racist associations, without those associations or statements being intentionally racist. More, we can’t be expected to recognize in ourselves such unconscious bigotry precisely because it lies in our unconscious mind, which is the “autopilot” to our “we,” and as such stands apart from our conscious control over it. Which means we’ll have to rely on others to spot our bigotry for us. God bless ‘em.

Now the strawmen are really starting to come out of the woodwork.  Whoever said that our racial attitudes are “buried deep in our sub-conscious,” beyond our conscious control?  Whoever came up with the idea that our conscious and unconscious minds are “divorced” from each other?  Whoever suggested that it is impossible for us to become conscious of our own “unconscious racism” because our “unconscious minds” aren’t part of our “We?”  Mr. Vedantam certainly makes no such claims in the NPR article, nor does he imply anything of the sort.  In fact, these are all fantasies invented by Jeff G. himself.  Of course, they are necessary fantasies if we are to give any credence to the central theme of his article, which is that Mr. Vedantam is part of a larger conspiracy to convince us that “we must rely on others to spot our bigotry for us.”  Why the insidious leftist elites Mr. Vedantam supposedly serves would want us to believe this becomes clear later in the article.  As Jeff G. puts it,

The upshot of all this is that we are left with an obvious way to fight “racism”: change society and culture in such a way that our “unconscious” mind — over which we have limited ownership (or rather, something akin to a rental agreement) — learns the “correct” lessons. We need to be taught which kinds of associations are acceptable and which are not. Our speech and thought needs to be cleansed; our autopilot re-educated.

Well,  not exactly.  Nowhere does Mr. Vedantam claim that it is even possible to “re-educate our autopilot,” and this must be dismissed as another of Jeff G.’s fantasy strawmen.  Far from implying that we have no control over our autopilot, he specifically states exactly the opposite.  Quoting from the NPR article:

“Our hidden brains will always recognize people’s races, and they will do so from a very, very young age,” Vedantam says. “The far better approach is to put race on the table, to ask [children] to unpack the associations that they are learning, to help us shape those associations in more effective ways.”

There is no suggestion here that the associations be “reprogrammed,” but simply that children be made aware of their existence, and the fact that they can manifest themselves as social evils such as racism.  Returning to the NPR article,

Going back to the autopilot analogy, Vedantam says it’s not a problem that the brain has an autopilot mode — as long as you are aware of when it is on. His book, “The Hidden Brain,” is about how to “take back the controls.

In other words, far from suggesting that we need to be “re-educated,” because we can’t control our “autopilot” by our own volition, Vedantam is again saying exactly the opposite; that our conscious minds are really in overall control, and that we are quite capable of dealing with asocial manifestations of unconscious behavior such as racism on our own, without the need for any “re-education” by cliques of leftist illuminati.  No matter, Jeff G. has already left reality far behind, and can’t be bothered to read what Vedantam is actually saying.  he continues,

On offer here is the following prescription: you can only know your autopilot by learning what culture and society have imprinted upon you. Once there, you can only “take back control” by changing what culture and society imprint. Because otherwise, nothing else Vedantam writes makes sense: if you could consciously control your unconscious, that would be a form of consciousness that robs the unconscious of its (presumed) power; so the answer is that you must control your unconscious mind by consciously decided what is appropriate for it to learn in the first place.

Which is to say, you can only take back control by giving over control to those who will properly teach you.

Here one can only shake one’s head.  Nowhere does Vedantam suggest that “you can only ‘take back control’ by changing what culture and society imprint.”  Far from claiming that you cannot consciously control your unconscious, he actually explicitly states exactly the opposite.  Nowhere does he suggest that its even possible to “correctly” program the unconscious mind by “giving over control to those who will properly teach you.”

Well, I can only offer Mr. Vedantam my sincere sympathy, and express the hope that, in future, those who attack his book will take the trouble to read it first. 

 The political animals on both the right and the left will always have their ideological axes to grind.  Meanwhile, we continue to learn.  That which is true will remain true whether it happens to be politically desirable and expedient or not.  Let us seek the truth.

Stephen Hawking, Genetic Engineering, and the Future of Mankind

The Daily Galaxy has chosen Stephen Hawking’s contention that the human species has entered a new stage of evolution as the top story of 2009.  It was included in his Life in the Universe lecture, along with many other thought provoking observations about the human condition.  I don’t agree with his suggestion that we need to redefine the word “evolution” to include the collective knowledge we’ve accumulated since the invention of written language.  The old definition will do just fine, and conflating it with something different can only lead to confusion.  Still, if “top story” billing will get more people to read the lecture, I’m all in favor of it, because it’s well worth the effort.  Agree with him or not, Hawking has a keen eye for picking topics of cosmic importance.  By “cosmic importance,” I mean more likely to retain their relevance 100 years from now than, say, the latest wrinkles in the health care debate or the minutiae of Tiger Woods’ sex life.

Hawking begins with a salutary demolition of the Creationist argument that life could not have evolved because of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  The fact that the use of this argument implies ignorance of the relevant theory has done little to deter religious obscurantists from using it, so the more scientists of Hawking’s stature point out its absurdity, the better. 

The lecture continues with some observations on the possible reasons we have not yet detected intelligent life outside our own planet.  These reasons are summarized as follows:

1. The probability of life appearing is very low
2. The probability of life is reasonable, but the probability of intelligence is low
3. The probability of evolving to our present state is reasonable, but then civilization destroys itself
4. There is other intelligent life in the galaxy, but it has not bothered to come here

My two cents worth:  I think the probability of life appearing is low, but the probability that it is limited to earth is also low.  It would be surprising if life only evolved on one planet, but managed to survive long enough on that one planet for intelligent beings like ourselves to evolve.  On the other hand, we may be the only intelligent life form in the universe.  If not, why haven’t we heard from or detected the others?  Let us hope that the proponents of the third possibility are overly pessimistic.

Later in the lecture, after noting the explosion of human knowledge over the last 300 years, Hawking observes:

This has meant that no one person can be the master of more than a small corner of human knowledge. People have to specialise, in narrower and narrower fields. This is likely to be a major limitation in the future. We certainly cannot continue, for long, with the exponential rate of growth of knowledge that we have had in the last three hundred years. An even greater limitation and danger for future generations, is that we still have the instincts, and in particular, the aggressive impulses, that we had in cave man days. Aggression, in the form of subjugating or killing other men, and taking their women and food, has had definite survival advantage, up to the present time. But now it could destroy the entire human race, and much of the rest of life on Earth. A nuclear war is still the most immediate danger, but there are others, such as the release of a genetically engineered virus. Or the green house effect becoming unstable.

I would differ with him on some of the details here.  For example, the bit about aggression oversimplifies the evolution of innate predispositions.  Back in the day when Konrad Lorenz published “On Aggression,” the behaviorists would have dismissed even a gentle soul like Hawking as a “fascist” for speaking of an “instinct” of aggression in such indelicate terms.  Nevertheless, when it comes to the basic premise of the sentence, Hawking gets it right.  We are not purely rational beings, nor is our behavior determined solely by culture and environment.  Rather, we act in response to predispositions that were hard-wired in our brains at a time when our manner of existence was vastly different than it is today.  They had survival value then.  They may doom us in the world of today unless we learn to understand and control them.

Hawking continues:

There is no time, to wait for Darwinian evolution, to make us more intelligent, and better natured. But we are now entering a new phase, of what might be called, self designed evolution, in which we will be able to change and improve our DNA. There is a project now on, to map the entire sequence of human DNA. It will cost a few billion dollars, but that is chicken feed, for a project of this importance. Once we have read the book of life, we will start writing in corrections. At first, these changes will be confined to the repair of genetic defects, like cystic fibrosis, and muscular dystrophy. These are controlled by single genes, and so are fairly easy to identify, and correct. Other qualities, such as intelligence, are probably controlled by a large number of genes. It will be much more difficult to find them, and work out the relations between them. Nevertheless, I am sure that during the next century, people will discover how to modify both intelligence, and instincts like aggression.

Laws will be passed against genetic engineering with humans. But some people won’t be able to resist the temptation, to improve human characteristics, such as size of memory, resistance to disease, and length of life. Once such super humans appear, there are going to be major political problems, with the unimproved humans, who won’t be able to compete. Presumably, they will die out, or become unimportant. Instead, there will be a race of self-designing beings, who are improving themselves at an ever-increasing rate.

Here, he is right on.  Unless we manage to destroy ourselves in the near future, or at least our highly developed technological societies, individuals will inevitably begin to take advantage of the potential of genetic engineering.  That is a good thing, to the extent that our survival is a good thing, because we are unlikely to survive unless we do develop into what Hawking calls “self-designing beings.”  We have certainly made a hash of things at our present level of development in a very short time.  We can’t go on long the way we are now. 

Continuing with Hawking:

If this race manages to redesign itself, to reduce or eliminate the risk of self-destruction, it will probably spread out, and colonise other planets and stars. However, long distance space travel, will be difficult for chemically based life forms, like DNA. The natural lifetime for such beings is short, compared to the travel time. According to the theory of relativity, nothing can travel faster than light. So the round trip to the nearest star would take at least 8 years, and to the centre of the galaxy, about a hundred thousand years. In science fiction, they overcome this difficulty, by space warps, or travel through extra dimensions. But I don’t think these will ever be possible, no matter how intelligent life becomes. In the theory of relativity, if one can travel faster than light, one can also travel back in time. This would lead to problems with people going back, and changing the past. One would also expect to have seen large numbers of tourists from the future, curious to look at our quaint, old-fashioned ways.

In fact, covering galactic and inter-galactic distances is not theoretically out of the question.  One may not be able to exceed the speed of light, but one can reduce the distances one has to travel via the Lorenz contraction.  Thus, if I could find some means to accelerate myself to nearly the speed of light, the apparent distance to, for example, the Andromeda galaxy would shrink until, finally, I could reach it in a time short compared to a human lifetime.  The only problem is, if I were able to turn around and come back the same way, the Milky Way would be about 3 million years older than when I left.  Accelerating objects the size of a human being to nearly the speed of light and ensuring their survival over large distances would not be easy.  However, accelerating the DNA required to create a human being, along with, say, self-replicating nano-machinery that could create an environment for and then use the DNA to bring a human being to life would be much easier, and, I think plausible.  It may be the way we eventually colonize distant star systems with suitable earth-like planets.  I am not on board with the alternative suggested by Hawking:

It might be possible to use genetic engineering, to make DNA based life survive indefinitely, or at least for a hundred thousand years. But an easier way, which is almost within our capabilities already, would be to send machines. These could be designed to last long enough for interstellar travel. When they arrived at a new star, they could land on a suitable planet, and mine material to produce more machines, which could be sent on to yet more stars. These machines would be a new form of life, based on mechanical and electronic components, rather than macromolecules. They could eventually replace DNA based life, just as DNA may have replaced an earlier form of life.

It puzzles me that someone as brilliant as Hawking could find such a vision of the future attractive.  Perhaps he has made the mistake of conflating our consciousness with ourselves, and thinks that “eternal life” is merely a matter of perpetuating consciousness in machines.  In fact, consciousness is just an evolved trait.  Like all our other evolved traits, it exists because it helped to promote our survival.  “We” are not our consciousness.  “We” are our genetic material.  That “we” has lived for many hundreds of millions of years, and is potentially immortal.  Consciousness is just a trait that comes and goes with each reproductive cycle.  If our consciousness fools us into believing that it is really the substantial and important thing about us, and its perpetuation is a good in itself, it may mean the emergence of a new race of machines.  Regardless of their consciousness, however, they won’t be “us.”  Rather, “we” will have finally succeeded in annihilating ourselves, and the future evolution of the universe will have become as pointless as far as we are concerned as if life had never evolved at all.

stephen_hawking

European Anti-Americanism, Then and Now

Brussels Journal quotes a charming new anti-American tune by Belgian musician Raymond van het Groenewoud with the original title, “Down with America.” According to BJ, the tune is

written in Dutch… and will be available in record shops as of next week, and was played on Belgian state radio last Thursday and Friday. Here is a quote from the lyrics of the song:

Hamburgers and coke, yes you already knew
But do you also know the cause of the general decay?
Short-sighted thinking, loud talking
Sticking to one-liners forever
Down with America! Down with the jerks from America
Down with America! […]

Down with American colonialism
Down with that ugly, biting English
All the Anglo-Saxon pretence, arrogance
Yes, a hot pick up their ass
And that is that […]

I am from the Belgian, the European panel
And I ask you: “Clear my channel! Clear my channel!”
Megalomaniac unicellular idiots
Kiss my ass, yes, kiss my balls

Thus one of the most recent expressions of European “Kultur.” I doubt that Der Spiegel, whose editors have been known to throw tantrums and become blue in the face over the excessively patriotic lyrics of Toby Keith, will even bother to take notice.

Like racism, anti-Semitism, and religious bigotry, anti-Americanism is a common expression of the Amity-Enmity Complex I’ve written about earlier. However, unlike racism, which justified slavery, or anti-Semitism, which resulted in the Holocaust, or religious bigotry, which has caused millions of deaths in Europe since the days of Constantine, anti-Americanism hasn’t yet resulted in a catastrophe sufficiently horrific to give it a bad name and render it socially unacceptable. As a result, it still thrives luxuriantly, although its intensity has fallen off somewhat of late from the obsessive, mindless frothing at the mouth one found in even the “respectable” European newspapers and magazines in the last years of the Clinton and the first years of the Bush Administrations.

In an ideal world, the psychologists would have recognized the Amity-Enmity Complex for what it is long ago; the fundamental aspect of human nature responsible for anti-Americanism and all of the other varieties of destructive behavior mentioned above, not to mention most of the countless wars that have marred our history from the dawn of recorded time. However, this is not an ideal world, psychology has been more akin to an ideology than a science lo now these many years, and so, instead of recognizing and controlling the Complex itself, we stagger on from disaster to disaster, assigning a bad name to each of its manifestations in turn so that we may recognize them as evil. So it is, and so it will continue until some inspired team of neuroscientists tracks down the bio-chemical processes responsible for the expression of the Complex molecule by molecule, documenting it so thoroughly than all but the most recalcitrant of the assorted species of psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists are dragged kicking and screaming into the real world, and can no longer deny a truth that should have been obvious to them long ago.

Well, we have been making wonderful and encouraging progress along those lines of late, and one finds glimmerings of common sense in even the darkest journalistic haunts of the social science professoriat. However, before they master a notion of such cognitive complexity as the close kinship of, for example, anti-Americanism and racism as common manifestations of the Amity-Enmity Complex, I suspect we will yet have a long path to follow.

To amuse you during the long wait, I’ve uncovered an interesting example of anti-Americanism from days gone by. Of course, such artifacts will come as no surprise to the cognoscenti among you, who, no doubt, can cite many interesting specimens of their own. Be that as it may, I turned up this example in a back issue of H. L. Mencken’s “American Mercury,” dated October 1924. It is entitled “A Yankee in Paris,” and documents a savage attack on Americans who dared to cheer on their Olympic football team. There are many nuances to the story that will be abundantly familiar to the modern reader, such as the remarkable delicacy of the mainstream media then as now in avoiding any mention of such outbursts. I have included a pic of the opening blurb below, and the story in full may be found here.

Blogscans179

Ardipithecus and Pliocene Progressivism

It’s amusing to see how little time elapsed between the spectacular discovery of the Pliocene primate “Ardi” and the revelation, based on study of her canine teeth, that she was a “New Soviet Woman,” endowed with all the progressive behavioral characteristics pertaining thereto. In particular, we learn that she lived harmoniously as a co-equal partner with small-fanged males who shared their food with her, helped rear her offspring, and spared her the unseemly spectacle of fighting with other males for her favors. No doubt if we find a few more teeth we will discover that she was an innocent victim of imperialism and colonialism perpetrated by less worthy primates who diverged from the direct human line at a very early date, and that her carbon footprint was unusually small for a Pliocene mammal.

ardipithecus2

Human Enhancement and Morality: Another Day in the Asylum

The Next Big Future site links to a report released by a bevy of professors that, we are told, is to serve “…as a convenient and accessible starting point for both public and classroom discussions, such as in bioethics seminars.” The report itself may be found here. It contains “25 Questions & Answers,” many of which relate to moral and ethical issues related to human enhancement. For example,

1. What is human enhancement?
2. Is the natural/artificial distinction morally significant in this debate?
3. Is the internal/external distinction morally significant in this debate?
4. Is the therapy/enhancement distinction morally significant in this debate?
9. Could we justify human enhancement technologies by appealing to our right to be free?
10. Could we justify enhancing humans if it harms no one other than perhaps the individual?

You get the idea. Now, search through the report and try to find a few clues about what the authors are talking about when they use the term “morality.” There are precious few. Under question 25 (Will we need to rethink ethics itself?) we read,

To a large extent, our ethics depends on the kinds of creatures that we are. Philosophers traditionally have based ethical theories on assumptions about human nature. With enhancements we may become relevantly different creatures and therefore need to re-think our basic ethical positions.

This is certainly sufficiently coy. There is no mention of the basis we are supposed to use to do the re-thinking. If we look through some of the other articles and reports published by the authors, we find other hints. For example, in “Why We Need Better Ethics for Emerging Technologies” in “Ethics and Information Technology” by Prof. James H. Moor of Dartmouth we find,

… first, we need realistically to take into account that ethics is an ongoing and dynamic enterprise. Second, we can improve ethics by establishing better collaborations among ethicists, scientists, social scientists, and technologists. We need a multi-disciplinary approach (Brey, 2000). The third improvement for ethics would be to develop more sophisticated ethical analyses. Ethical theories themselves are often simplistic and do not give much guidance to particular situations. Often the alternative is to do technological assessment in terms of cost/benefit analysis. This approach too easily invites evaluation in terms of money while ignoring or discounting moral values which are difficult to represent or translate into monetary terms. At the very least, we need to be more proactive and less reactive in doing ethics.

Great! I’m all for proactivity. But if we “do” ethics, what is to be the basis on which we “do” them. If we are to have such a basis, do we not first need to understand the morality on which ethical rules are based? What we have here is another effort by “experts on ethics” who apparently have no clue about the morality that must be the basis for the ethical rules they discuss so wisely if they are to have any legitimacy. If they do have a clue, they are being extremely careful to make sure we are not aware of it. Apparently we are to trust them because, after all, they are recognized “experts.” They don’t want us to peek at the “man behind the curtain.”

This is an excellent example of what E. O. Wilson was referring to when he inveighed against the failure of these “experts” to “put their cards on the table” in his book, “Consilience.” The authors never inform us whether they believe the morality they refer to with such gravity is an object, a thing-in-itself, or, on the contrary, is an evolved, subjective construct, as their vague allusion to a basis in “human nature” would seem to imply. Like so many other similar “experts” in morality and ethics, they are confident that most people will “know what they mean” when they refer to these things and will not press them to explain themselves. After all, they are “experts.” They have the professorial titles and NSF grants to prove it. When it comes to actually explaining what they mean when they refer to morality, to informing us what they think it actually is, and how and why it exists, they become as vague as the Oracle of Delphi.

Read John Stuart Mill’s “Utilitarianism,” and you will quickly see the difference between the poseurs and someone who knows what he’s talking about. Mill was not able to sit on the shoulders of giants like Darwin and the moral theorists who based their ideas on his work, not to mention our modern neuroscientists. Yet, in spite of the fact that these transformational insights came too late to inform his work, he had a clear and focused grasp of his subject. He knew that it was not enough to simply assume others knew what he meant when he spoke of morality. In reading his short essay we learn that he knew the difference between transcendental and subjective morality, that he was aware of and had thought deeply about the theories of those who claimed (long before Darwin) that morality was a manifestation of human nature, and that one could not claim the validity or legitimacy of moral rules without establishing the basis for that legitimacy. In other words, Mill did lay his cards on the table in “Utilitarianism.” Somehow, the essay seems strangely apologetic. Often it seems he is saying, “Well, I know my logic is a bit weak here, but I have done at least as well as the others.” Genius that he was, Mill knew that there was an essential something missing from his moral theories. If he had lived a few decades later, I am confident he would have found it.

Those who would be taken seriously when they discuss morality must first make it quite clear they know what morality is. As those who have read my posts on the topic know, I, too, have laid my cards on the table. I consider morality an evolved human trait, with no absolute legitimacy whatsoever beyond that implied by its evolutionary origin at a time long before the emergence of modern human societies, or any notion of transhumanism or human enhancements. As such, it can have no relevance or connection whatsoever to such topics other than as an emotional response to an issue to which that emotion, an evolved response like all our other emotions, was never “designed” to apply.

On the Irrational Instincts of Psychologists and Anthropologists

William Morton Wheeler was, like E. O. Wilson, an expert on social insects. In his book, “Social Life Among the Insects,” published in 1924, he wrote,

The whole trend of modern thought is toward a greater recognition of the very important and determining role of the irrational and the instinctive, not only in our social but also in our individual lives.

Oddly enough, the same statement would be as accurate today as it was then. Somehow, in the intervening years, we were derailed by the absurd behaviorist psychology of Skinner, Montagu, et.al., and the equally ridiculous “Not in our Genes” anthropology of Lewontin and Levins. Their work never really made any sense. For the most part, they were political ideologues, and their “science” was whatever was necessary to fit their narratives. For a time, and a long time, at that, politics trumped science in psychology and anthropology. For decades, it looked like Trofim Lysenko was winning.

Now, thanks to some remarkable advances, notably in neuroscience, but in many other scientific bailiwicks as well, the Montagus and Lewontins find themselves in a niche with such other variants of their species as the creation “scientists” where they have always belonged.

Since we have now come full circle, perhaps it would be well if the psychologists and anthropologists would leave off chasing the latest scientific trends for a time, and look back over their shoulders. They really owe us an explanation. How is it that people who claim to respect scientific truth were capable of deluding themselves and the rest of us for so long? What are the irrational aspects of our nature as human beings that made it possible for major branches of the sciences to be hijacked by political ideologues over a period of decades? Let them explain themselves. It would go a long way towards restoring their credibility.

But Wasn’t Hitler Evil?

Apologists for objective moral codes often seek to make their point by posing questions such as, “Wasn’t Hitler absolutely evil,” “Wasn’t Stalin absolutely evil?” or some variant thereof. The argument is emotional rather than rational, and relies on the manner in which our moral nature is wired in our brains to deny the dependence of morality on that wiring for its very existence. In other words, they rely on the fact that our brains cause us to perceive morality as an objective thing to argue that, therefore, it really is an objective thing.

Archeologist Timothy Taylor presents a variant of the “Wasn’t Hitler Evil?” argument in an essay entitled “The Trouble with Relativism,” that appeared in one of Edge.org’s latest publications, “What Have You Changed Your Mind About?” In this case, the “self-evident” evil he cites is the human sacrifice of children practiced by the Incas. According to Taylor,

In Cambridge at the end of the 1970s, I began to be inculcated with the idea that understanding the internal logic and value system of a past culture was the best way to do archaeology and anthropology… A ritual killing was not to be judged bad but considered valid within a different worldview… But what happens when relativism says that our concepts of right and wrong, good and evil, kindness and cruelty, are inherently inapplicable? Relativism self-consciously divests itself of a series of anthropocentric and anchronistic skins – modern, white, Western, male-focused, individualist, scientific (or “scientific”) – to say that the recognition of such value-concepts is radically unstable, the “objective” outsider opinion a worthless myth.

He then goes on to dismantle the historical myths that claimed “that being ritually killed to join the mountain gods was an honor that the Incan rulers accorded only to their own privileged offspring.” In fact, his research team discovered that they were actually “peasant children, who, a year before death, were given the outward trappings of high status and a much improved diet in order to make them acceptable offerings.”

Taking advantage of the moral high ground thus established, Taylor goes on,

We need relativism as an aid to understanding past cultural logic, but it does not free us from a duty to discriminate morally, and to understand that there are regularities in the negatives of human behavior as well as in its positives. In this case, it seeks to ignore what Victor Nell has described as “the historical and cross-cultural stability of the uses of cruelty for punishment, amusement, and social control.” By denying the basis for a consistent underlying algebra of positive and negative, yet consistently claiming the necessary rightness of the internal cultural conduct of “the Other,” relativism steps away from logic into incoherence.

Taylor is mistaken in equating recognition of the subjective nature of morality with “relativism.” I am familiar with the mentality of the people he describes, and I reject it as much as he does. He is quite right in pointing out the inconsistency of defending moral relativism while claiming at the same time that the internal cultural conduct of “the Other” is necessarily right. However, he also “steps from logic into incoherence” himself when he exploits the emotional impact of the murder of children for cynical ends to defend a “basis for a consistent underlying algebra of positive and negative.” If, in fact, those who would affirm the objective existence of morality have some logically defensible basis in mind then, as so eloquently suggested by E. O. Wilson in “Consilience,” they should “lay their cards on the table.” They have not been able to do that to date.

Morality is an evolved trait of human beings. We perceive good and evil as absolutes because that is our nature. That is the way we are programmed to perceive them. In reality, they are subjective mental constructs. No moral revulsion or emotional response, no matter how strong, not even to Hitler’s Holocaust, or Stalin’s mass slaughter, or the ritual murder of children, can convert morality from what it really is into that which we perceive it to be.