The first pollykaryote arose quite by chance. Someone had started a co-operative insurance group with es neighbors so they could protect one another from foreclosures. Needing a constitution of sorts, they had found a set of governance rules online which looked to do the trick. But as it turned out, there lay a clause somewhere in that code stipulating that any section could be changed, added or removed on a vote. Naturally, members began to suggest new uses for their polity, slowly shifting, nudging, extending its initial function. As it matured and friends or neighbors asked to join, the leaderless society swelled beyond its earlier, more manageable size, and so, after much deliberation and a vote, it split in two.
There is a long post on the Illusive Mind blog defending an evolutionary morality against Kant. I do not particularly want to defend Kant, but i do want to raise a very sizable caveat: whatever “morality” evolution has given us isn’t by any means necessarily the “right” one!
Here is the synopsis of the article/post:
In this essay I will outline what I regard as the most successful attempt to explain the evolution of altruism. I will then illustrate some of the effects that an evolutionary account of moral behaviour has on cognitivist and noncognitivist theories of ethics. I will argue that evolutionary theory does not undermine Hume’s noncognitivism but supports it and casts doubt on Kantianism.
Where things go horribly wrong is when morality is reduced to “a question of desire” because we then have nothing to ‘get behind desires’ and assess them morally (unless you posit some kind of coherence theory, but that is no the case in this article):
The question of retaining moral judgements then is reduced to a question of desire. Do we want to utilise judgements whose agenda is the ongoing survival of the species (at the level of the gene) through a system of rewarding co-operation and punishing cheating?
In effect the morality we have inherited through evolution is taken to be ‘valid’ – except when we don’t like it. The exception is, in my opinion, befuddled; the first part of the above sentence is, however, very dangerous, committing something akin to an is/ought or natural fallacy.
The only alternative on offer is a purely rational ethics à la Kant, but even this is undercut by more primary evolutionary forces:
The only way to be objectively moral and avoid ‘evolutionary baggage’ from tainting our moral judgements seems to be to devote oneself completely to reason in a Kantian fashion. However, it is not a forgone conclusion that reason is above evolutionary pressures. In The Evolution of Reason, William Cooper argues, “the laws of logic emerge naturally as corollaries of the evolutionary laws” (2003, p.5).
In the end, one gets the impression that we are enslaved to the morality evolution thought up for us and are incapable of stepping out of it to evaluate our own moral intuitions.
Admittedly, evaluating our moral intuitions is no easy task. But what is often forgotten is that we are not alone working at that task. It might be impossibly solipsistic for me to want to morally evaluate my own moral intuitions (where would i stand in order to do so?); but it certainly is not very difficult for someone else, actually many other people, to do so.
The solution will likely be neither Humean nor Kantian. We must both use some moral intuitions to assess other ones but also reason through our moral intuitions and find instances where the intuitions clearly go wrong.
standing on E. O. Wilson’s broad shoulders, Brandon Keim wonders if, like the bees and the ants, humans aren’t a eusocial species, with homosexuality being the pinnacle of our other-oriented (ie non-reproducing) evolution:
So with all necessary caveats against reductionism and misappropriation, we can ask: should human societies conceive of themselves in terms of group-level selection? Have we already developed aspects of eusociality? And — just to make matters really interesting — could non-reproducing humans, such as (most) gays and lesbians, as well as heterosexuals who choose not to have kids, actually be a manifestation of this emergent eusociality?
As noted in my previous post, Ian McDonald’s book River of Gods deals with a number of religious topics. One is that of the intersection, and in fact concurrence of Artificial Intelligence and Divinity. This is nothing new in Science Fiction, but McDonald gives the topos a special and particularly interesting treatment.
In the book humans have developed AIs (he calls them aeais, which gives them further numinous character) that so far surpass humans that they are for all intents and purposes gods. The only difference is that they are so different in nature from human beings (being without bodies and being able to copy themselves at will) that they can hardly understand them. Of course, humans get scared of their creations, outlaw them and hunt them down. So much for the plot.
What is most interesting from a religious (as opposed to IT) perspective is that the concept of a “god” can be so easily shifted onto what is in the end a computer program. And this says much more, i think, about our idea of a god than it does about AI. A god is (at least for McDonald, but he is obviously using widely held views) whatever is much bigger and stronger than we are, regardless if we created it ourselves or not. (Note that this is not the christian definition of a god as whatever we worship/serve.)
So what does this mean about the future of our concept of a god? I think we can learn from McDonald that a god is not actually what we might think it is. We might sooner than later want to call “god” some things that we might never have imagined – i.e. we might need to go from looking for something that fits our idea of a god (the standard proofs of gods existence do this) to calling a god something that fits our idea of what one is like. In the first case god is nothing new (he was there all along waiting for us to find him); in the second case, he might well be brand-spanking new.
A second thought about these AI gods is that they fit much better into a polytheistic worldview than a theistic one. In effect McDonald sees the future as polytheistic. Granted, his new god are not as transcendent as the old ones used to be, but a polytheistic world always is monist anyhow (the gods are part of the world, not external to it). River of Gods offers us a bunch of more or less mortal, very un-human gods that neither create worlds nor mess around with humans (overly much). But the concept of a god remains very useful though much modified, and in that at least i presume McDonald is right on the (future’s) money.
Ian McDonald’s science fiction novel River of Gods takes place in India on the Ganges in 2046. There are two interesting features of the novel pertaining to religion and ethics with which i would like to deal. The first is has to do with emotions and controlling them. In the novel a new genre of human beings appears called nutes, people who have undergone extensive plastic surgery to remake them into asexual beings of immense beauty and accordingly short lifespans. (Btw, the idea seems most appropriate for a futuristic India inasmuch as there currently are scores of males castrated at birth running around dressed like women forcing money out of people for all sorts of reasons – though they usually leave westerners alone, especially if they are pretending to sleep in a third class sleeper train.)
What is interesting about these nutes is that the emotions associated with sexuality among others have been rerouted from their now nonexistent sexual organs to a set of controls on their arm. They can thus program in whatever emotions they would like to feel at any given moment.
This reminds me of both stoicism among other greek philosophies as well as hindu and buddhist meditation techniques. Stoicism wanted us to gain control of our emotions, though in order to eventually get rid of them. This meets half of what a nute can do (control yts emotions). Meditation, however, as far as i have understood it so far, actually seeks (among many other things, of course) to do exactly what these nutes have been fixed to do: a buddhist is supposed to learn through meditation to distance him or herself from his or her thoughts and emotions, though not in order to destroy them; rather in order to gain control over them. The point of meditation is to create a self that is no longer lost in its emotions and thoughts, but can view and thus direct them from a higher vantage point.
McDonald does not portray his nutes as superior versions of a human being, but just different types of people. Nor does he ever compare a nutes relation to yts emotions to how a woman or a man relates to emotion. I cannot however but help thinking that these nutes are somehow “more adapted” humans, something that some humans at least have aspired to becoming. I still think though that the meditation route is far superior to the plastic surgery route, if only for pecuniary reasons.
The very best quote is from Daniel Dennett: “Sophisticated theology is like stamp collecting. It’s a very specialized thing and very few people do it.” (24:48)
I’d like to go through the first hour’s worth and point out a few problems with these gentlemens’ arguments. I don’t disagree mostly with their conclusions, but i certainly take exception to how they get there. For all the brain power around that table, none of them seem to understand what religion is. They define it epistemologically, from the point of view of knowledge – i.e. from the point of view of science. Religion is bad science, it is believing nonsense, holding true unverified facts. This is, of course, miles away from how religious people understand what they are doing. Until the atheists stop defining religion however they well please, they will simply be talking right past their intended audiences. And that is a shame.
Dennett: “the religions have contrived to make it impossible to disagree with them without being rude. They play the hurt feelings card at every opportunity.” (00:47)
Dennett: “There’s no polite way to say to somebody: Do you realize you’ve just wasted your life? Do you realize that you’ve just devoted all your efforts and all your goods to the glorification of something that is just a myth?” (5:55)
This last comment shows that Dennett does not at all understand what religion is about. Whether or not all the details of Christianity are historically true is not a matter of great concern to most christians. Religion is not about verifiable statements, but about getting through life. Religious statements are good religious statements if they work, not if scientists can prove them true. Even if it turns out that the God of Abraham does not exists, a christian will not have wasted her life. Because he belief will have given structure to her life, will have provided her with friends, a community, reassurance, hope, love. Arriving at such things is never a waste, no matter how shaky and temporary the road you’ve taken to get to them.
It is true that many but certainly nowhere close to all religious people do themselves believe that they’re scriptures must be scientifically right for their religion to be at all valid and will therefore fight for creationism and literal interpretations of fabulously impossible passages. What a sophisticated atheist must realize though is that these people are mixing up their religion with science because they cannot distinguish between the function of science (to produce mostly useable knowledge) and the function of religion (to live life well). The proof that these fundamentalists are mixed up (and that religion is not itself at fault) is that they do not understand what science is. They are willing to force their religious beliefs upon science in such a way as to turn science into religion (or at least an existential matter). Thus they prove that what is important to them as religious people is actually the impact of their beliefs upon their lives and not the truth of them.
Fundamentalists have mistakenly believed those who claim that religion is about truth as scientists define that term. And they have accordingly tried to defend religion against science, thinking both were on the same playing field. This assumption that religion is a type of science, which Dennett is here reiterating, completely misrepresents religion and is in part responsible for religion’s bellicoseness.
Hitchens suggests around 12:00 that what we need to do is separate between the numinous and the supernatural. This is actually a very interesting and worthwhile idea. Of course, he wants to say that the numinous is perfectly ok and that the supernatural is just plain false. This is, of course, a matter of definition. The only caveat is that the numinous is just as religious a phenomenon as the supernatural. Getting rid of the latter will not dispose of religion, though it might fix some of its current problems.
Dennett: “I dont think many of them ever let themselves contemplate the question – which scientists ask themselves all the time – What if i’m wrong?” Hitchens disagrees and suggests that many religious people are in a “permanent crisis of faith” (15:00)
Hitchens is, of course, right. Dennett is again comparing religion to science with dubious results: the “What if i’m wrong?” question means something very different in the mouth of a research chemist as in the mouth of a clergyman. The first simply has to tweak her experimental apparatus or her equations. The latter has to reinvent his entire existence. You have to admit that the former question is substantially easier. A question of equivalent difficulty for a chemist as the above is for the religious would be: “What if i should have become a doctor? Should i drop everything and go back to med school?”
Around 27:00 these great minds show how limited their view of religion is. It basically is confined to believing silly things on faith. They’ve obviously not been to a church service in Tübingen, Germany! No one here believes much of anything in the bible is to be taken on face value. For that matter, theologians have been interpreting the unbelievable and irreligious portions of the Christian scripture since the first centuries of the christian era:
Dawkins: “They [bishops and vicars] do preach about what adam and eve did as though they did exist.”
Dennett: “Can you imagine any one of these preachers saying when such a topic is introduced: Um, this is a sort of theoretical fiction; it’s not true but it’s a very fine metaphor.’ No!”
Dawkins: “They kind of after the fact imply that that is what they expect you to know” Dennett: “But they would never announce it.”
Harris: “… These moderates don’t admit how they’ve come to be moderates. What does moderation consist of? It consists of having lost faith in all of these propositions or half of them because of the hammerblows of science…”
Harris’ last comment is of course what Charles Taylor’s 800 pages of A Secular Age was bent on disproving. Science doesn’t disprove religion, at best it forces religion to reinvent and review itself (which is a very good idea, and something religion desperately needs to do as soon as possible). A moderate is not a half-baked cookie. A moderate is a more flexible, self-reflexive religious person.
The fundamental problem with these four horse’s attempts is that they do not offer a substitute, an ersatz for religion. The very fact that they do not realize that they need to do so if they are to convince anyone. Simply put: these atheists do not realize that atheism is a sub-set of religion, that they do have a religion (perhaps a much more viable and simpler one), a (non-dogmatic and changing) metaphysical view of the world, sets of moral practices, general ways of getting through life. If only they’d tell us how they do it!
From the Friendly Atheist.
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Arthur M. Jackson has put a whole book online about a “Science of Ethics“. His ideas seem promising, and i will in the days to come blog my perusal of his book (he advertises 300.000 words!).
The preface and introduction give an overview of this science of ethics, explaining that it is a form of knowledge, based on an understanding of the meaning of life. The goal is to become “enlightened persons” living in “enlightened communities“. The stated goal seems general enough, though i am wary of basing the science on the concept of “meaning of life”, because even if the author rightly refuses to define the content of this meaning, the very idea that the meaning of life is paramount is most certainly subject to change.
The first chapter sets the idea of a science of ethics as the culmination of human social evolution. A number of natural but undesirable “propensities” are outlined that need to be overcome:
A science of ethics must help individuals become more aware of their self-defeating inclinations that stand in the way of achieving what is in their long term best interests. This knowledge needs to be available so they can more effectively deal with these tendencies. Understanding that these propensities exist is not taken as justification for succumbing to them, just the opposite. Knowing about them helps us to become aware of such behavior and do what it takes to interrupt or redirect it. Because such patterns develop in puberty, or even before and are found in all adult human beings to varying degrees thereafter, they are something we all have to learn how to deal with, if we are to become enlightened persons. And, we must do this in new ways never widely applied in any society or group before.
Sadly large amounts of “positive ethics” (by which i mean a prescriptive, dogmatic morality) appear here as the desirable alternatives to the undesirable propensities: “Monogamy, or at least serial monogamy”, “All of humanity is us”, or “We each have our private space, but the earth belongs to everyone”. Even if it is emphasized that such ideas will themselves have to evolve, it is a shame that they are included in the idea of the science. Science is a method and all content should be avoided when describing its principles.
The first chapter then closes with the idea that western thinkers have usually opposed the individual and society, but that the goal of humanity is to rise above its natural propensities by using the “symbolic thinking” made possible by language so as to bring harmony between the individual and society.
All in all, the first bit of the book offers an interesting idea, that of a science of ethics, but does not deliver on explaining how that science will work. Moreover, no clear line is drawn between scientific method and the knowledge that is to be produced via that method. But perhaps chapter 2 will provide some answers…
There’s a piece at the NYT on the genetic/evolutionary origins of morality.
Don’t be fooled by the illustration at the top, the articles does not at all talk about the silly “throw the fat man in front of the train” argument that is so much in vogue of late (for those of you unaware of this “staple of ethics classes” here’s a bit at answers).