Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Excerpts from a discussion of logic, morality, and evolution

A guy named Steve is currently trying to mangle my views into submission.

Here's my response to his latest post.


Steve: “by your own definition of morality, fascism is a social convention. A social contract.”

That doesn’t follow from my understanding of morality. By my definition of morality, fascism is the negation of contracts, because it denies the ability of individuals to negotiate contracts.

You said Nazi Germany satisfied my conditions for morality. Yet, Nazi Germany was not based upon the most rational arguments available. It does not meet my criteria.

You say that “a process of negotiation assumes at the outset that we have a right to enter into contractual negotiations.”

No, it need not make that assumption.

You say, “We can observe an event, but the rightness or wrongness of an event is unobservable. Moral properties are not empirical properties. We can observe a bank robbery, but the bank robbery doesn’t look or sound or smell or taste or feel right or wrong.”

This is funny, because you and others here make continual reference to conscience as a guiding factor in your moralizing. What is conscience, if not the “feel” of right and wrong?

So, which is it? Do you deny that we can have feelings about what is right or wrong, or do you simply deny that such feelings can be manifest in a physical way?

I imagine you wish to claim that feelings cannot be physical. Such a claim is absurd for two reasons: first, because neuroscientists are making measurable progress in understanding just how feelings are produced by brains; second, because you have yet to define what a non-physical existence would be or how it could be recognized as distinct from physical existence.

“How do you empirically measure the immorality of murder—assuming you think that murder is wrong?”

I measure the right or wrongness of an action by whether or not I want to live in a society where such actions are considered right or wrong.

You say, “you first need to derive and justify the concept of “best” before you can apply it to a concrete situation.”
Justify the concept? Okay, here’s a justification of the concept: Given that we can only consider a finite set of options, and we can evaluate the relative desirability of different options, we can determine which option (or set of options) seems the best.

Would you like me to explain any other rudimentary concepts here?

You ask, “Why assume that what is good for humanity is good? Is what is good for Stalin good?”

I’m not making any such assumptions.

”Why, on your grounds, should humanity exist, survive, and prosper?”

I think humanity should exist and prosper, because I want myself and everyone I love to exist and proper. If you don’t think humanity should survive or prosper, then we have a fundamental disagreement of values.

You say I “appealed” to theological noncognotivism. Actually, no, I didn’t appeal to it. I argued for it. If you wish to address my arguments about that, feel free. It seems you do not want to address those arguments, however, because you chose instead to dismiss them as “just a warmed over version of the long discredited school of logical positivism.”

Either address my arguments, or don’t. But this kind of dismissal is clearly unwarranted.

Now, you wish to accuse me of ignorance, when in fact all you are doing is misreading my words. (You do that a lot, you know.)

In response to my assertions about negative theology, you said, “At best, your claim would only apply to the apophatic tradition.”

Yes, that’s right. I was talking about the apophatic tradition.

Then you point out that “many theologians are not apophatic theologians.”

Good for you, Steve. But, Steve, you see, I never said that ALL theologians were apophatic.

Your conclusion that my “historical claim is demonstrably ignorant and demonstrably false” is demonstrably based on your demonstrable tendency to put words in my mouth.

That’s not a respectable habit you have there, Steve.

Next you ask me to explain why it is unintelligible or incoherent to think that God can instantiate any possible state of affairs. To answer that question, I’d first have to know what the term “God” refers to. As I explained to Rhology, the term is defined in self-contradictory ways. E.g., God is defined to exist outside of space and time. This implies that God does not exist at all, because to exist is to persist over time. This is a contradiction.

Ready for a shock? You put more words in my mouth here: “You were dismissing Biblical ethics on the mere grounds that it’s contained in a book. An old book.”

Nowhere did I dismiss the Bible’s ethics solely on the grounds that it is an old book. You say that was my “original objection.” Steve, you are a liar. It’s shameful.

You ask, “do blindly programmed robots have rights?”

I don’t see why any rational agent should be denied rights, no matter their cellular composition and no matter how they came to be. So, blindly programmed robot or not, it makes no difference to me.

”To “justify” altruism by appealing to natural selection commits the naturalistic fallacy. Morality is not about what is, but what ought to be. Even if our sense of altruism is a product of natural selection, that’s a descriptive statement, not a normative statement.”

Let’s break this down and look at what you’re actually saying.

First, you are correctly pointing out that morality is about what “ought to be.” Of course, morality must take into account what is; if it didn’t, it would be irrelevant.

Thus, your moralizing, for example, takes into account what you think is the most important conditions for guiding your moral principles: namely, “God”, the Bible, etc. So, you make reference to what is when you discuss what ought to be.

Clearly, moralizing requires an understanding of what is as well as notions about what ought to be. And, of course, we should not forget the difference between the two.

But now, look at what you say next. You say, “even if our sense of altruism is a product of natural selection, that’s a descriptive statement, not a normative statement.”

And? You think this has some negative implications for my argument, Steve?

Steve, please . . . just try to think here.

The claim that altruism is a product of natural selection is not an “ought.” It is an “is,” just like the many “is” statements you take into account when you approach your own convoluted undertanding of morality. And I am not confusing it for an “ought” statement.

I am not saying that morality ought to be a product of natural selection. If I was making such a bizarre statement, then you might have a point. But since I’m not, your flailing about here is truly absurd.

Next, you say, “once we become aware of our evolutionary conditioning, we’re in a position to resist our evolutionary conditioning. It only works if we’re unaware of it. Like someone who’s been brainwashed.”

Ah, so if I try hard enough, I can condition myself to survive indefinitely without food or water? Wow. I didn’t know that.

Your insight is astounding, Steve. Really . . . this is impressive stuff.

You say, “So you have yet to explain why we should be altruistic. Selfish genes won’t do the trick.”

People are altruistic, at times, under certain conditions, because it is advantageous for the replication of their genes. This, of course, says nothing about whether or not being altruistic is good for you or anybody else you know. It only describes what has tended to be good for our genes.

So, why should people be altruistic? Game theorists have shown that a “tit for tat” approach to cooperation tends to be very successful in certain populations. It is most likely the case that human beings have evolved so that we work best together when we demonstrate a certain amount of trust and mutual interest with other members of our communities.

In short, altruism makes sense, given the right conditions.

You ask, “Do you even know what an abstract object is?”

First of all, it isn’t at all clear that you do. So far, you’ve only defined the “mental realm” in negative terms, as something that cannot be quantified. Your definition would make abstract objects unquantifiable, and thus unknowable. I presume you don’t think mathematical objects, like numbers, are unquantifiable, do you?

So your understanding of abstract objects is incoherent.

My understanding is as follows: abstract objects are algorithms, like computer programs.

Your view is that abstraction requires representation, and that physical systems cannot represent on their own. And yet, neuroscientists have already made some headway into understanding just how the brain produces representations. You can deny this evidence, just like you deny the evidence in favor of evolutionary theory, of course.

You ask, “where do possible worlds come from? Not from the real world, since a possible world is a way the real world might have been, but isn’t.”

The phrase “possible world” is an abstraction, an algorithm. You are confusing thoughts with reality. You do that a lot.

And you ask, “Or what about infinite sets, like the Mandelbrot set. In what does that inhere? Not in the human mind, since the human mind is finite.”

Sets are algorithms. You assume that every definable set corresponds to something beyond itself, something beyond the algoritm. That's a nonsensical view.

To see this, consider the following issue. You wish to assert that there is some abstract realm in which all of the infinite and transfinite numbers actually exist. And yet, Godel proved that mathematics cannot be both complete and consistent. This means that, if there were some weird realm in which mathematics was complete, then that realm would contain internal contradictions.

How do you explain this?

Of course, it would help if you coherently defined your terms in the first place.