Saturday, November 23, 2002

Morality and Intellectual Incoherence - last of a series

In the early part of the 19th century, John Keats lodged a protest against what he saw as the cold science of Isaac Newton for “unweaving the rainbow” and draining the wonder from the natural world. One hundred and seventy five years later Richard Dawkins issued a rebuttal of sorts with his book Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder.

Both Keats and Dawkins, I think, missed the point. Our pleasure in the rainbow is not necessarily less for understanding the prism effect. I would go so far as to say that the more we know about material phenomenon, the more our wonder increases. The heart of this particular darkness lies elsewhere.

Derk at Mind Floss said this:
The properties of water are not obvious from the properties of hydrogen and It is not clear to me why the moral domain can’t find its justification right here, in this world. Hydrogen is not wet. Oxygen is not wet. Yet when they are combined in the right combination, wetness emerges. Viewed in isolation, atoms, mass, and velocity may be amoral, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that morality is not a product of their combined effects.
The properties of water emerge from the atomic properties of hydrogen and oxygen. True. Morality can also be said to be a product of the combined effects of physical phenomenon. Again, true, but only in the sense that throwing a dozen darts can result in a dozen bullseyes (or any other combination of results). The properties of water are written into the atoms of oxygen and hydrogen, two pieces of a puzzle that fit together in the molecule of water. Unless thwarted by temperature, pressure, or some other condition, it will always be so; you will always end up at the same place. If you rewind the tape of evolution will you end up at the same place with the same ‘morality’? Unless morality is a real, though immaterial, thing like a circle or a line segment, no. So although morality (in the Darwinian view) is the product of combined material effects, it is fundamentally different than the combined effects that lead to water.

So what? Only this: If we conclude that there is nothing beyond us, that nothing exists outside of physical objects and the abstractions that describe them, it means that we just happen to being making our way through a highly improbable world with moral beliefs that, though existing for a reason of sorts, float – untethered to any real meaning or value - in our minds.

This is a profound conclusion and profound conclusions have profound consequences. Once we accept this conclusion as viable, three paths are presented to us: 1.) We accept it and fully embrace it, 2) we accept it but act as if we really don’t – we live a lie, or 3) we believe that the final truth of these matters is beyond our grasp and we defer to a higher power. Few follow the first path since people like Dylan Klebold, Eric Harris, and Pol Pot are probably already there. Most everyone who accepts the darwinian worldview ambles down the second path. They say things like “this world is sacred” (Dennett) or “there is a difference between the way we know the world is and the way we know it ought to be” (Dawkins) and leave it at that. They then occupy themselves with beating to death the ‘illusions’ of the people on path three, using their own as club.

It is easy for a child to pretend to be a fireman. The excitement, the noise, the heroics, are the stuff of childhood fantasy. He’s not concerned with (even if he is aware of) the reality of the job – long hours of boredom, short moments of panic, low pay, and the horror of having to confront charred bodies and bereaved victims. I think that if one follows the second path, he is like the child pretending to be a fireman, but I am inclined, like Samuel Clemens, to draw down the curtain of charity on this scene. Just don’t yank it back up unless you want it to stay up. I am pleased to read the books of Dawkins and Dennett about the charms of natural history and the very interesting ways our minds operate, but I ask that they spare me the chimera of their illusions being better than somebody else’s because they are ‘scientific’.

Wednesday, November 20, 2002

A composite statement from an on-line evolution discussion board:
If you have ever taken a flu shot or antibiotics you have benefited from evolutionary theory. Flu viruses mutate rapidly and every year researchers identify the most threatening strains (mutations) that we may be exposed to. The fittest viruses are those most likely to survive against the human immune system. Likewise, bacteria become resistant to antibiotics through an evolutionary process. Mutation produces many new strains, some of which are not affected by the antibiotic and the fittest strains survive. Educated by evolutionary theory, we can try to stay one jump ahead of the natural evolutionary development of these populations.
When darwinists make claims such as “nothing in biology makes sense outside of evolutionary theory” or point to the ‘fact’ of evolution (scroll down the page a little), this is the kind of thing they are talking about. Let’s take a look.

Antibiotics destroy bacteria in two ways: either the cell wall is weakened or the bacteria’s metabolism is interrupted. Bacteria can become resistant to an antibiotic in one of two ways as well. A bacterium can exchange genetic material with other bacterium through a couple of different mechanisms and thereby pick up a gene for resistance. This is somewhat analagous to sexual reproduction except that it’s a direct transfer, not a transfer from parent to offspring. Although a non-resistant bacterium can become resistant to antibiotics this way, no new information has been created, just transferred.

It is also possible for bacteria to become resistant due to random mutation. To greatly simplify (but not change the basic mechanism) antibiotic molecules work by attaching themselves to mating sites on the bacteria’s genetic material. It then does its work as noted above. A bacterium becomes resistant when it loses the ability to attach to molecules of the drug. This change is inheritable and a new strain of antibiotic resistant bacteria can emerge. In other words, bacteria become resistant due to a loss of information. It’s actually wrong to say ‘become resistant’ when in fact they simply lose sensitivity.

This phenomenon does indeed show a form of natural selection at work but in fact argues against darwinian evolution which states that complexity (increasing information) is built up one small step at a time. All that happens here is a neutral exchange or a net loss of information.

And there’s another little annoyance: After eons of time, bacteria are still bacteria.

Saturday, November 16, 2002

Consider this statement:
Women will never break through the glass ceiling in significant numbers because they have less of men's innate ambition and willingness to take the risks necessary for success. Quite literally a woman is made to be the complementary companion for a man and her role is mainly bearing and nurturing of children. The male-headed traditional family structure is what works best. Man, by the way, cannot escape his true nature, his selfishness, his violent tendencies, so dreams of creating a man-made utopia here on earth are doomed.

Although these could easily be the thoughts of a Southern Baptist Church elder, they are in fact a composite of statements made or implied by people like Robert Wright, Edward O. Wilson, and Steven Pinker – all outspoken darwinists and outspoken atheists. These ideas follow a very simple line of logic. If all biological life can be explained in darwinian terms, then the behaviors of these life forms can (only) be understood in darwinian terms as well. Over the years varieties of this school of thought have gone by various names: social darwinism, sociobiology, and most recently, evolutionary psychology.

No matter what you call it, it is an ambitious endeavor that claims to explain the patterns of human behavior we call morality - and everything else significant about us - as a consequence of darwinian natural selection. What humans tend to like or think of as ‘good’ are behaviors and tastes that have, or had, survival value. Those that we do not like or think of as ‘bad’ are detrimental to our survival. Over time, and with changing conditions, some ‘good’ things may lose their survival advantage and become neutral or even end up over in the ‘bad’ column.

For the darwinian there is no other way to approach morality and the bizarre implications of this approach can hardly be overstated. Andrew Ferguson, writing in The Weekly Standard a few years back, provides a glimpse in regards to our sexual roles and our aesthetic sense, supposedly hard-wired by evolution:
For the sociobiologist, the ramifications of [the] view of sexual roles range from the relatively trivial to the cultural and the political. But the important point is to reduce all of human behavior to evolutionary (and hence genetic) process. This is the sociobiological imperative. For example, an entire field of "Darwinian aesthetics" has sprouted from evolutionary psychology to explain why men like the types of women they do. It turns out that what we consider beautiful in the opposite sex is merely a measure of reproductive fitness. It is not clear though why male interest in, say, lesbian sex can aid in reproductive fitness.

The evolutionary psychologist Devendra Singh [has] discovered that waist to hip ratio is an important indicator of child-bearing ability among women. The optimum is 0.7. And that, says Singh, is the waist-to-hip ratio that men around the world, from all cultures, in all regions, prefer in their women. Coincidence? Absolutely not, say the sociobiologists. Nothing will budge them from their scientific discovery that men (on average) would rather have sex with young and pretty women than old and ugly ones.

You don’t have to study this idea long, that morality (and aesthetics) has evolved due to its survival value, to realize that it’s a powerful predictor. Of the Past. In most cases, darwinists do little more than observe moral or other hard-wired traits and then speculate on conditions that could have lead to their evolution. Ferguson continues:
Many of sociobiology's speculations rest on question-begging and circularity. In his textbook (Evolution and Human Behavior), John Cartwright includes dozens of examples, with varying degrees of plausibility. He wonders, for example, why human beings crave salty and fatty foods. Surely this is "non-adaptive," unhealthy behavior. By sociobiology's own logic, natural selection should have "selected out" such cravings; that is, organisms who ate too much fat and salt should have perished earlier and so passed on fewer of their genes. But now here we are, millennia after the close of the Pleistocene, neck-deep in chili-cheese fries. What happened? Like a good sociobiologist, Cartwright takes a leap into the speculative blue yonder. "Our taste buds," he says, "were probably a fine piece of engineering for the Old Stone Age when [salty and fatty] foods were in short supply and when to receive a lot of pleasure from their taste was a useful way to motivate us to search out more."

Aside from being untestable, Cartwright's theorizing (which he has borrowed from other sociobiologists) tells us only that we like food that tastes good to us. He still hasn't explained why natural selection has programmed us to prefer unhealthy foods high in fat over healthier foods that are, say, high in protein or rich in complex carbohydrates.

And then there’s this:
As a theory, it is one size fits all. In a famous example, Steven Pinker accounted for mothers who kill their newborns by pointing to the pressures of natural selection and reproductive fitness that young mothers suffered back in the [distant past]. Of course, the same pressures, the same overriding criterion of reproductive fitness, are used to explain why mothers will die for their children. Kill them, die for them: Sociobiology explains it with the same set of theories.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, the darwinist account of morality does not go so far as to make morality arbitrary, but does make it beholden to one thing only: survival value. And since cockroaches are much better equipped for long term survival, man’s moral sense (actually, his need for one) is less than pointless and meaningless from the survival standpoint, it is a detriment. But let’s elevate it to the level of meaninglessness for a moment. Even darwinists recoil at this since evolution can neatly account for – even speak favorably for – racism, sexism, ageism, and (especially since many darwinists are left/liberal types) the utter futility of welfare states and other methods of wealth re-distribution. In an interview quoted in Ullica Segerstrale's Defenders of the Truth, left/liberal darwinist Richard Dawkins takes on both critics and enthusiastic supporters of this aspect of darwinism, who "are too stupid to understand the distinction between what one says about the way the world is, scientifically, and the way it ought to be politically."

Ought cannot be derived from is. Too Bad. It’s the darwinist’s only option.

Sunday, November 10, 2002

Intellectual Incoherence, part 5

It may be useful at this point to define a few terms. To keep it simple, morals are the seemingly hard-wired and universal feelings; the things that make us want to help the neighbor’s son in the lawnmower accident scenario. Our moral sense is not all-powerful, though, in that it can be overridden even if it cannot be over-written.

That’s where ethics or values come in. The use of our moral sense – the embracing of, ignoring of, or attempt to change it - is the difference between Ghandi and Stalin. Empirically speaking, a system of ethics that denies our moral sense would seem to lead to disaster, New Soviet Man and the (thankfully shortened version of) The Thousand Year Reich being two recent examples.

Of course, the darwinist has no problem with the belief that morals evolved and has plenty of just so stories to prove it. As is the case with all of darwinism, on a superficial level the evolution of morality can be presented in compelling terms. A detailed and ruthless analysis, though, is not so compelling.

And there is another problem. Along with the ‘good’ stuff we are hard-wired with (love, compassion, guilt for wrongdoing, and so on) we have some ‘bad’ stuff too: greed, hatred, and lust to name a few. Both the good and the bad can be explained in terms of their survival value. So we are left with the problem of how to sort them out, or to be more exact, how it is that we have already sorted them out, calling some good and some bad.

Playing the part of broken record, I must point out yet a deeper problem by going back to the lawnmover accident. On the basest darwinist level, the long-term survival of my DNA, going to the aid of the injured party fails the test. As to the next level, survival of man in aggregate, the feedback loop to extract and preserve this biological trait from the gene pool is clearly fantastic, and in my mind impossible. But let’s forget all that. At the end of the day, in the darwinian world, it makes no difference. A thousand years from now, or when, as Russell put it “all of man’s noonday brightness is buried under a universe in ruins”, it will matter not whether the neighbor’s son dies today, or as an old man, or ever lived at all. It is absurd for a bunch of beings that are the result of “the ultimate odd-ball improbability” of evolution (Gould), who’s very concept of a unified self that even has political opinions is an illusion (Pinker, Dawkins, and others), to have a discussion about the merits of libertarianism. Clearly, trying to determine if libertarianism is “false” or “wrong” is a non-starter.

This may also be a good time to restate my purpose for this blog. It is not to bring anyone over to my way of thinking; it is to let the darwinian doubter know that there are excellent reasons for his doubts. Even if I allow for the possibility of being wrong, that darwinian evolution is truly the theory of everything, I am cheered by the knowledge that there is absolutely no downside to being so.

Friday, November 08, 2002

Intellectual Incoherence, part 4

From Steven Pinker’s quote below:
Many of our faculties evolved to mesh with real things in the world. We have a complicated system of depth perception and shape recognition that prevents us from bumping into trees and falling off cliffs. The fact that our ability to recognize an object comes from complicated circuitry of the brain does not mean that there aren't real objects out there.

What Pinker is clearly stating is that the complicated circuitry of the brain, like depth perception, hearing, and the opposable thumb, answers to only one 'higher authority', survival value, our ability to mesh with real things in the world. As the evolutionary tree of life thrusts ever upward, its creations encounter trees, cliffs, and many other obstacles. Through clever (only seemingly) adaptation it conquers these obstacles and makes them its own, or at the very least finds a path around them.

Pinker faithfully follows the darwinian script and it leads to a rather odd result. Indeed, the brain evolved in order to give us as accurate a representation as possible of what is objectively out in the world. The conclusion is that morals were pre-existent and man merely encountered these "real things" that are "objectively out in the world” along his evolutionary trajectory. For the darwinist, this would appear to be intellectual incoherence.

Pinker offers a way out:
...many moral philosophers argue that right and wrong have an existence, and that our moral sense evolved to mesh with them. (That's exactly what you just said, Steven) Even if you don't believe that, there's an alternative that would make the moral sense just as real -- namely, that our universal moral sense is constituted so that it can't work unless we believe that right and wrong have an external reality. So if you want to stop short of saying that moral truths exist outside us, you can say that we can't reason other than by assuming that they do.

In other words, just frame the issue in the way that best suits your sensibility, agenda, and audience at the time. Be that as it may, it’s not clear how a darwinist could seriously entertain the idea that "moral truths exist outside of us." The unsupported claim that it makes "the moral sense just as real" notwithstanding, self-deception - the swallowing whole of comfortable and useful myths - is the only option left. More on this.

Tuesday, November 05, 2002

Intellectual Incoherence, part 3

In the Dawkins/Pinker talk linked below, Steve Pinker, of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, a best-selling author and darwinian celebrity of the current age, takes on the idea that a darwinian derived morality is of little real value. Does this make our morality arbitrary and inconsequential?
Not at all. This supposed devaluation of morality does not follow from the idea that we have an evolved moral sense. Many of our faculties evolved to mesh with real things in the world. We have a complicated system of depth perception and shape recognition that prevents us from bumping into trees and falling off cliffs. The fact that our ability to recognize an object comes from complicated circuitry of the brain does not mean that there aren't real objects out there. Indeed, the brain evolved in order to give us as accurate a representation as possible of what is objectively out in the world.
Being a no-nonsense darwinist, Pinker frames his argument in darwinian terms, i.e. morals have survival value, much like depth perception and object recognition. Leading up to this, Pinker calls this idea - that evolved morals have no real value - a non sequitur. But in fact, his entire statement above is a non sequitur unless it can be demonstrated that our morality, our sense of duty, our willingness to risk harm for the benefit of a sometimes unknown other, furthers the chances of our personal genetic material's survival.

Sunday, November 03, 2002

Intellectual Incoherence, part 2

The reason that libertarianism is so fascinating to me is that it is, in its pure form, analogous to the darwinian worldview. I'm imagining here an end-of-the-scale atheistic libertarianism. In this world there is no higher purpose than the proliferation of your DNA. Here, helping the neighbor's son is absolutely unthinkable. The potential benefits to you and your life purpose are exactly zero. On the other hand, helping the injured party has many dangers. What if the lawnmower is still a threat? What if you're exposed to aids-infected blood? And so on. Such behavior should be weeded out of the genetic pool in short order.

Please understand that I am not saying than any individual consciously thinks “my life’s work is to have as many viable offspring as possible to pass on my genetic material.” The great algorithm of darwinism demands it to be so however, whether the individual is aware of it or not. This is not my assertion, it is the assertion of Richard Dawkins and others who have fully embraced (sort of) the idea that the highest ‘moral’ principal is survival. This is Dawkins speaking at a joint presentation with Steve Pinker in the recent past:
Darwinism in this more general universal sense refers to the differential survival of any kind of self-replicating coded information which has some sort of power or influence over its probability of being replicated. DNA is the main kind of replicating entity that we know on this planet that has that property. When we look at living things on this planet, overwhelmingly the kind of explanation we should be seeking, if we ask what the functional significance is an explanation in terms of the good of the genes. Any adaptation is for the good of the genes which made that adaptation.

And yet, what kind of a monster would serenely read the newspaper on his front porch while his neighbor’s son bleeds to death in his full sight a couple of hundred feet away?

Friday, November 01, 2002

Intellectual Incoherence

The germ of this idea has been buried in the back of my mind for some time. An exchange with another blogger this past week on the subject of libertarianism brought it to the forefront. To keep it simple, let’s just call it the disconnect I so often see between an individual’s professed world view and the way that individual conducts his life. It all started when I responded to this basic question (I’m paraphrasing and simplifying) from ‘Phil’ (not his real name):

If you notice your neighbor’s son on the ground in his front yard, bleeding to death because his lawnmover has severed his foot, is it ‘right’ to simply ignore the situation and let him die? If you consider yourself a libertarian and cannot prove that this response is ‘right’, then (I’m now quoting) “libertarianism is false”.

Now, before I go much further, please realize that libertarianism is only tangentially the subject here. However, I’ve noticed that libertarians, or those professing libertarian beliefs, exhibit more than their fair share of the type of disconnect I mentioned. There’s a lot more to this and it’s instructive in regards to the darwinian mindset.

Having juggled more than my usual allotment of weasels this week, I don’t have the energy to go any further at present. So let me just leave you with an example of a fragment of a more coherent worldview from a certain Frank J:

Even if you don’t want to go all the way and be Catholic, I think a belief in God is a cool thing. Me, it helps me be humble. Yeah, I know, I’m not that humble; but I’d be completely intolerable without religion. I might have even ended up as some loudmouth idiotarian. Plus, it’s nice to have God as that ace up your sleeve for the time you find yourself having to jump out of a plane without a parachute. On the other hand, I would like to say I know a number of atheists who are good, moral people even without a belief in God and I don’t think they’re going to hell or anything. God thinks they’re going to hell, though, and His opinion counts more.

There’s more and it’s worth a look. Sure it’s tongue-in-cheek but there’s an unusual amount of honesty, self-awareness, and intellectual consistency as we shall see.