Sunday, July 31, 2011

Human Exclusivity


I am constantly amazed how every time we think we've found something that is exclusive to the human animal and absent from the rest of the kingdom we find an example of a non-human animal doing it in nature. Opposable thumb, tool construction and use, theory of mind, third level planning, altruism, war, city building, symbolic communication, culture, aesthetic sense, we have gone up the list, finding non-human examples of each of these, until now we are left with positing things like the ability to do calculus and other such complex abstractions as our hypotheses for domains of human exclusivity. The problem is, if we use these, do we then have to define people who can't do calculus as sub-human. There seems to be no bright dividing line between man and the other animals, a criteria which applies to all humans and no other animals. The implications of this realization are far-reaching, it compels us to reexamine our traditional relationship with the rest of the animal kingdom. These implications have been discussed at length and in depth with tremendous insight by Peter Singer.
The examples of behaviors we consider "human" that have been observed in other animals are myriad:
-Aesthetics. Surely humans are the only species that can appreciate beauty. Only we create art, investing energy in something that has no inherent survival value. But this is not the case. There are bird species (like Australia's Satin Bowerbird which is pictured above) in which the male will spend days arranging gathered material according to color and other aesthetic criteria into a unique expression of what can only be called art, the amount of energy invested in the activity is incredible. They aren't the only animal artists either, a simple google search will bring up examples of paintings created by animals from elephants to chimpanzees, and there is evidence that the animals use aesthetic criteria in the creation of these pieces of art.
-City Building. Some of our cities have nothing on the vast complex metropolae of certain species of insects like ants and termites.
-Culture. Some say that humans are unique because we have the capability of passing down information to subsequent generations extra-genetically through culture. We have libraries and the internet and what one of us learns can be built upon by those who come after us. But even this has been observed among non-human animals. Killer whale pods pass on their hunting methods inter-generationally. There are certain seal-hunting cultures and other fish-eating cultures, and among the seal hunters there are certain cultures that have discovered how to beach themselves in pursuit of amphibious seals and they pass this successful technique on to their children. Culture can also be found among the great apes. There are certain orangutan populations that have fishing cultures, in addition to their mostly vegetarian diet they have learned to catch and eat fish and have passed the culture on to their offspring. The same thing has happened among chimpanzee populations in regard to termite fishing technologies.
-Planning. Some of the most surprising discoveries relate to the cognitive abilities of certain species of the crow family. So far crows are the only non human animals who have demonstrated the ability to mentally construct third level plans. In the test that revealed this ability a piece of food was placed in a box with an access point too small for the crow to reach in. Another box was placed in another location with a long stick inside but again the access point was to small to let the crow reach the long stick. The third box contained a short stick that was long enough to allow the crow to reach the long stick, but not long enough to allow it to reach the food. So the crow had to realize that in order to get the food it would have to first retrieve the small stick and use it to retrieve the large stick which it in turn would use to retrieve the food, and this is exactly what it did.
-Altruism. Even behaviors that we have associated with human morality such as altruism have been found in the other animals. But surprisingly altruism can even be observed in simple lower levels of life. For example, the bee that sacrifices its own life by stinging a threat to the hive. Even a certain species of forest amoeba which usually lives a solitary life on the forest floor, but in times of water scarcity, individual amoebae will gather together to form a kind of slime that will go out into the sun and the individual amoebae will form a slime appendage reaching toward the heavens out of their bodies. Those amoebae that form the tower will then dry up and die allowing the remaining amoebae to climb to the top and float off on the breeze to another area where they might find a more suitable environment. In effect, the 30% or so of amoebae who form the tower have sacrificed their lives so that the other 70% could survive.

Every time we think we have definitively drawn the dividing line we end up having to inch it back. I guess we'd better brush up on our calculus.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Moral Obligation

I've been thinking a lot about morality lately and how it fits into naturalistic versus supernaturalistic world-views. I've listened to a lot of debates and many different perspectives and I think I've come to some pretty solid conclusions. But there is still one area where I don't have a good answer. That is: how can the idea of moral obligation fit into a naturalistic (and therefore deterministic) world-view?
It seems to me that naturalists can make a good case that human morality is objective and that it is based on the concept of well-being versus suffering of sentient creatures. Therefore, using a well thought out and well tested ethical system like "rule-utilitarianism" that takes well-being and suffering into account to decide on the right action in any given situation, the naturalist can justifiably discern the moral from the immoral. Where the naturalist's system of morality breaks down is trying to justify the existence of objective moral obligations.
I have come to believe that in order to argue that moral obligations exist there must be an inherent purpose to human life, a purpose that cannot be supplied by the naturalistic world view (as argued very ably by this panel of atheist and Christian all-stars [this debate is certainly worth watching if you've got the time, I think I agree most strongly with Michio Kaku, but he doesn't get to talk until the end]). Now I'm not saying that naturalists lives are purposeless, but they create those purposes for themselves in order to live fulfilling lives. There can be no inherent objective purpose to life in naturalism as there is in the theistic world view.
From the theistic perspective it is simple. Every person is created by God with the inherent purpose of coming to know God and engage in a loving relationship with Him. God is the perfection of morality, so those characteristics which he possesses are moral, anything opposing the moral is immoral. And since the inherent purpose of our life is to have a relationship with God, we therefore have an obligation to act morally.
But since the only purposes we can have in the naturalistic universe are those subjective purposes that we create for ourselves, there can be no true obligation to act morally.
The only arguments I can foresee against this conclusion are:
1) The argument from evolution: we have a natural obligation to propagate our genes & since morality is an adaptive strategy we have an obligation to engage in it.
-But it seems to me that same line of reasoning could be used to argue we have an obligation to engage in social Darwinism and/or eugenics.
2) When a rational mind realizes that there are moral truths, reason obligates him to act morally.

Really the big problem I see with any conceivable argument for the existence of moral obligation in the naturalistic world view is this: Someone once said "Ethics is what we do when nobody is looking." And within the naturalistic universe I can't think of anything that obligates a person to act morally even when nobody is looking or when nobody will ever know whether you acted morally or not.

Friday, July 22, 2011

All In The Family

I was just watching an episode of All In The Family where Mike and Gloria go on vacation and Archie and Edith start fighting with one another. Archie calls Edith a bunch of names ("Edith the Good", "perfect", "not human"), Edith starts hysterically wailing and demanding that Archie apologize, saying things will never be the same between them until he takes it back. Then Edith basically gives Archie the silent treatment, hoping to coerce him into apologizing and Archie tries to get Edith to warm back up to him without apologizing. Eventually Archie kinda apologizes in his own way, and they all live happily ever after.
It got me thinking about how big an influence television is in the life of the modern American, and how scary that is considering the nature of sitcoms like this one. In order for a show to be funny and interesting it has to have plenty of conflict. This conflict is usually created out of the personality defects of the characters; sitcom characters are the most neurotic collection of maladapted, passive aggressive, obsessive-compulsives that you'll ever find. What's more, the better the show, the more conflict, the more neurotic the characters. So the most watched shows have the most screwed up people.
Now if you have a country full of people who grow up with these neurotic messes as their role models, how healthy is that country going to be? Deception, manipulation, emotional blackmail, procrastination and passive aggression will be as common in society as they are in the sitcoms.
And what's to be done? Nobody is going to tune in to a show where the clear-thinking main characters sit down and discuss their problem rationally before it gets out of control... that's not funny.

Coral Fish And Other Exceptions To Nature's Rules.

I was watching Animal Planet the other day, a program about species that go through dramatic transformations at some stage of their development and the one that caught my attention was about a species of coral reef fish known as a wrasse. These fish live in groups (harems) of several small females dominated by one large-bodied male. But the interesting thing is what happens when the male dies: one of the female fish will change sexes, their body will completely transform and they will take over the dead male's place. Apparently their genome contains instructions for both genders but the instructions for "male" are only used when the environment dictates it is appropriate.
So I went to see if I could find more information about this and I found an article that says this ability is actually the norm among coral reef fish species.
This kind of stuff always amazes me; the way life will expand to fill every crevice and niche and develop the most incredible specialized adaptions. There's a Radiolab episode about a graduate student who led a scientific expedition to the arctic to explore the sea bottom for new forms of life. Apparently everyone wanted to discover a three-eyed tubeworm, but what they found was field upon subaquatic field of "yellow fluff" a strange new form of microbial life just kickin' it down beneath the arctic ice. Granted it's no three-eyed tubeworm, but it is Life.
Life's incredible adaptations seem to have no bounds. It was just last year that scientists discovered a form of microbial life that was not dependant on the same five elements basic to all known life. It used Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen and Nitrogen, but apparently didn't need Phosphorous like every other living thing (Although, there has been some controversy over the study that reached this conclusion).
Given the amazing stubbornness and perseverance of life, and the incredible length of time since our universe exploded into existence, it seems to me that life might be a lot more inevitable and common than we tend to believe.

Frank Fairfield


I've been discovering the wonderful world of Podcasts more and more. I happened across a podcast from the Seattle radio station KEXP with a bunch of live performances from really great artists. One of the artists I found through this podcast was Frank Fairfield. He plays really great old-timey music. Check him out.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Science, What Is It Good For... Absolutely Everything

A couple weeks ago I was having a philosophical discussion with an acquaintance who has a strong background in science about the possibility of free will in a materialistic universe. The conversation took many twists and turns, and somehow we got to an area where I used principles of Quantum Mechanics to argue a point having to do with the subject of free will. My opponent objected. He claimed that science can only be used for measuring events which occur in the natural world. Science, he insisted, could have nothing to say about philosophical issues. I was completely taken aback. I did not know there were people who believed this. I saw it completely differently. I viewed science as a method for discovering objective truth in all areas of inquiry. I considered science (or maybe more exactly empiricism) the best tool that humanity possessed to discover truths about the nature of the universe, and that it should be used in all areas where we sought one of these truths. I thought that my view was the majority view among scientists.
It turns out that this is actually very controversial among scientists. His view is more common. This blows my mind.
I don't understand scientists who claim that science can have nothing to say about philosophy and/or values.
Luckily I've got at least one really smart guy on my side: Sam Harris argues this pretty effectively in this lecture.

Objective Morality

I just watched a debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig on whether the existence of objective morality requires a supernatural source.
It's truly amazing how often debates like this come down to a failure on both sides to define their terms and, further, to agree on those definitions. William Lane Craig and other Christian apologists often accuse the atheist of being unable to justify the existence of objective morals within their naturalistic world-view. The apologist will then discount any argument made for natural objective morality on the basis that it assumes goodness or badness or preferability of certain results like well-being or thriving of sentient creatures, when, without a supernatural law-giver the atheist has no foundation for any such statements. The atheist will progressively simplify his arguments, thinking that the apologist just doesn't get what he's saying, until he gets to the basic statement of something like "it is better for sentient beings not to be in absolute misery." But again the apologist says that he has no basis for this valuation. So the argument, having been reduced to absurdity, hits a dead end.
The problem from the apologist's side is that he is defining "objective morality" differently from the atheist. When he says "objective morals" he means something like "divine commandments". He argues that God is the embodiment of absolute moral perfection and therefore, any quality he possesses is objectively moral and any action that opposes the moral is objectively immoral.
Now obviously, since the atheist does not believe in God, he is not arguing for that definition of "objective morality". Nor would it be logical to argue that objective morality, under the apologist's definition, can exist in the absence of a supernatural God. But the atheist defines "objective morality" differently. The atheist's definition of "objective morality" is something like "universally applicable ethics". He argues for the application of "rule-utilitarian" ethics under which an action is moral if it is likely to cause the most well-being and/or least suffering among all affected sentient creatures and would do likewise if that action were taken as a guideline for what others ought to do in similar situations. So, for example, although it may cause more well being on an overall scale for me to go next door and kick my single neighbor out of his house by force and invite three homeless people to take it over, it would decidedly create a world of less well-being if that action were taken as a guideline for how one ought to act. Everyone would be kicking everybody out of their houses, personal property would become meaningless, etc.
Now this is simply a system of rational ethics which best correlates to the system of conscience that we all have within us, but it does give us an objective, rational method to arrive at a morality which is independent of culture, religion, personal wants and desires, etc. Therefore, it seems to be a pretty good exposition of what an objective morality could look like in a naturalistic world view.
The apologist's only possible argument to this is "well, what makes well-being good? You are arbitrarily setting up your system on the desirability of well-being and the undesirability of suffering."
Obviously, this is absurd, but that is where the defining of terms comes in. At this basic level, you do have to make the assumptions necessary in the definitions of your terms. Well-being is good because I am defining it as good, it has "well" in it. Suffering is bad because I am defining it as bad, what's more, everyone knows its bad, and if you don't accept that then the argument is doomed to fruitlessness anyway.
However, once you can accept that suffering is undesirable and well being is desirable, you have a perfectly legitimate non-supernatural basis for objective morality.
Furthermore, I defy any supernatural moralist to come up with an example of an action which is objectively evil that truly defies rule-utilitarian ethics; that is, an action that all moral people would agree is absolutely deplorable but causes widespread well-being and would do so if taken as a guideline for how others ought to act in similar circumstances. The fact that this can't be done argues that well-being and suffering are the true foundations for our moral systems.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

To Push Or Not To Push?

Along the lines of my last post...
I recently listened to an old episode of WNYC's Radiolab about morality. They were discussing a scientific study in which people were asked how they would respond in certain situations that required a moral decision. The first situation was like this: You're standing at a rail yard and you see five guys working on a track, and then on that same track you see a train headed toward them, you're too far away and/or it's too noisy for you to warn them, but you do have a switch that would divert the train onto the neighboring track and on the neighboring track there is only one single worker. Do you switch the train onto the other track, thus killing one man who otherwise would have lived, but saving the five men who otherwise would have died?
In the study, nine out of ten people said yes, they would throw the switch.
The second situation is like this: Same rail yard, same five workers on the track with the train coming. But this time you're on an overpass directly over the tracks and you don't have a switch, but there's a great big fat guy next to you, and you realize that if you just push him off the overpass onto the tracks, he'll die, but his body will stop the train and save the five workers. Do you push the fat man?
In the study, nine out of ten people said no, they would not push the fat guy.

I guess it might be evidence of my intolerance to hypocrisy, but I answered yes to both situations, before I knew the results of the study.
There are a lot of issues that this study raises: What is the material difference between the two situations? In both cases you are killing one person in order to save five people, the only difference is in the method. I think that the real difference is that in the first scenario, you are one step removed from the immediacy of the action; you're just flipping a switch, it takes intellectual reasoning to link that action to the altered course of the train and then another step to the death of the man hit by the train. On the other hand, the murder of the fat man is viscerally immediate to your action of pushing him from a great height, this takes no intellectual reasoning to realize, you pushed, he died.
I would argue that there is no moral difference between the results of acting in each situation, the difference is all in how shielded you are from the consequences of your action.

Hypocrisy Intolerance?

Ever since I was a teenager I have had a strong aversion to hypocrisy in myself as well as others. This attitude has had real effects on my views and my actions. When I realized that I was eating meat that came from animals that I would not be morally comfortable killing, I decided to adopt vegetarianism. Until I was willing to kill a cow, I would not eat cow meat. My belief is that it is morally abominable to shield oneself from the moral repercussions of an action that one has caused. I feel that people would behave more morally if they were not protected from the moral consequences of their actions. There would be more vegetarians if people had to slaughter the animals they ate. There would be fewer wars if the leaders of national governments had to see first hand the results of a rocket going off-course and striking a day-care center. The death penalty would be abolished if live coverage of every execution pre-empted all radio and television programming.
However, I have been occasionally criticized for being too intolerant of hypocrisy. I am willing to grant that it is practically impossible to live a life completely free of hypocrisy. I have some areas of hypocrisy in my life which I am unable or unwilling to alter. The obvious example: I strongly believe in conservation of the natural environment, yet I drive a car with an internal combustion engine that spews pollutants and greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Why don't I stop? Because I need my car, damn it. I have no justification for this, it is simply an area where my actions fall short of my ideals. In this example I am at least not guilty of avoiding the consequences of my actions, we are all confronted with the smog and pollution which we spew daily. Hopefully these negative consequences will spur us all on to find some solution to the problem.
But if the negative consequences of our poor stewardship of the environment were hidden from us, the way they are hidden naturally in the case of Global Warming (until the thing is well on its way to catastrophic levels), we lack the motivation to make the positive changes in our behavior that would avoid those consequences.
What I am most opposed to is artificial methods of shielding people from the moral consequences of their behavior, because these methods promote immoral behavior by divorcing it from its moral context. A decision to eat a can of pork and beans is divorced from the moral context of deciding to slaughter a pig. A decision to vote for the allocation of funds needed to launch a military invasion of another country is divorced from the moral context of the decision to rain death and destruction down upon a community of human beings. A decision to vote for a pro-Death Penalty legislator is divorced from the moral context of pushing poison into a human being's veins in order to end his life.
Am I too intolerant of hypocrisy? Perhaps I would be well-advised to keep in mind the practical reasons that people act in certain ways and let those circumstances mitigate my moral judgement, but I think that over-tolerance of hypocrisy is far more dangerous than an abundance of intolerance of hypocrisy.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Do I Really Have A Choice?

So, I've been thinking a lot about free-will lately. It started when I came across the podcast of The Don Johnson Radio Show. He's an Evangelical Christian Apologist espousing a reformed epistemological perspective , from which he takes the tenets of Christianity for granted and then tries to argue against his opponent's world-view, exposing its inconsistencies and absurdities (I offer a criticism of this approach in a comment thread here on Don Johnson's blog). At first I thought he did a pretty good job of this in his debates with non-Christians, especially atheists. But the more I listened the more frustrated I became, and it took me a while to figure out why.
I eventually came to the conclusion that the logical errors in Don's own arguments were at such a basic level that one does not notice them immediately. It's kinda like if you were arguing about the quickest route from Los Angeles to San Francisco and you claimed it was best to take the 5 straight there and the other person claimed it best to take the 15 out through Las Vegas, then double back. Now you might make a bunch of logical arguments about how clearly your route was a lot shorter, but it might take you a while to discover that the reason your opponent argues his position is because he assumes that the laws of thermodynamics don't apply east of the 5 so he could travel at 20, 000 miles per hour on his route, and therefore he would obviously beat you there.
One of the arguments that recurs over and over again on The Don Johnson Radio Show is the argument from free will. One piece of data that Don claims is better explained by his form of Christianity than any other world-view is the fact that everyone feels like they have true libertarian free will. Over and over Don states that from a Materialistic world view in which "Matter is all that exists and the universe is a closed system of cause and effect" free will is impossible. He claims that a supernatural world view allows free will through Dualism and thus conforms better to the data point at issue. However, he never offers a satisfactory explanation of how the non-physical soul or mind interacts with the physical body and brain in his system of Dualism. Nor does he address how the non-physical component of a person is any less susceptible to deterministic arguments than the physical component is. The soul too must have been created with some kind of inherent nature, and shaped by environmental factors, so how does the addition of another component to the agent provide for indeterminacy if the component added is as determined as the rest of the agent?
Some of these points were argued very effectively by Jeremy from the Reasonable Doubts Podcast when he agreed to do a show with Don and his co-host Brandon on the subject of free will. Jeremy took the side of Naturalistic Determinism and pretty much exposed Don Johnson's arguments for the irrational, specious straw man arguments that they are, until he eventually got so fed up with Don's stubborn and immature refusal to argue like an intelligent adult and hung up on him (definitely poor form, but if you listen to the show it's hard to argue it wasn't justified).
I agree with most of the points that Jeremy made, but I have ultimately come to the conclusion that, after a point, the argument is basically one of semantics rather than of substance.
From the evidence one could come to one of a few different conclusions:
1. "People have free-will, just like we feel we do. Of course we are all influenced by a wide variety of factors, but that is different from being determined. When it comes down to it and I am faced with a decision I choose which action to take, and if I could go back and decide again I could choose something totally different."
It seems to me that this position is unsustainable. If every single factor was exactly the same, how could you possibly argue that you might choose something different? What would be the reason for that change? If there is a reason for it, then it is determined, if there isn't a reason for it then it's capricious and random and is not really the kind of free will most people mean when they claim it as a possession.
2. "Sure all of our choices and actions are technically the result of an infinite number of causal factors, but there are so many that it would be impossible to ever quantify them all, and therefore, impossible to predict an agent's future actions through analysis of all these factors. This being the case, although we may not have pure libertarian free will, we have something that is just as good as free will."
I think this argument is perfectly legitimate.
3. "Every action is the result of a multitude of causal factors. No action exists that is not fully caused by some number of antecedents. We make "choices" in the sense that there are theoretically possible actions which an agent may take in a given situation and the agent acts according to a list of causes including his genetic makeup, his early childhood experiences, whether and what he ate for breakfast that day, what psychological influences are at work upon him, etc. But if one was to go back to the same situation, with all of these causal factors the same, one would act the same every time."
This argument too is perfectly sound and what's more I think it does not differ from argument two in any substantial way. It's really a matter of how you want to look at it.

I've noticed more and more examples of the fact that so many disagreements between intelligent people of good-faith who are responding to the same evidence tend to come down more to semantics and emotional perspective, rather than the substance of the argument or true material differences.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Why should anyone care what I have to say?

Okay. So here I am joining the ocean of humanity who have convinced themselves that their myriad opinions, biases and views on everything from the trivial to the profound are so fascinating that they would be committing an injustice if they did not allow the greater world access to them. Should I take it for granted that anyone would care what I think about any given issue? Maybe I'll just view the function of this blog from a more etymologically correct perspective, that of a log on the web. I will use this forum to organize my thoughts so they become more clear to me, and if anyone out there wants to look in on the process and it helps them to examine their own ideas then that will be a bonus. If they wish to discuss one of my views with me and thus aid me in my quest for truth, then this tool will have exceeded its expected value.