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Archive April 2011

Exposing the pretense of Christian unity Ken Perrott Apr 29

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Thanks to:  Nathan Lee

I sometimes think that moderate Christians are afraid to criticise their more extreme brethren. How many, for example, will openly criticise the large minority of Christians whe oppose evolutionary science. In New Zealand I estimate that about 40% of Christians oppose evolutionary science (see New Zealand supports evolution).

similarly, I often think Christians who accept the scientific picture of global climate change seem afraid to criticise those conservative Christians who actively campaign   against the science. And then there are issues such as women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, and so on.

On these issues it often appears that conservative and extreme Christian groups will pretend to speak for Christians as a whole. And they get away with it because fellow Christians are hesitant to stand up and openly criticise them

So I was pleased to see this initiative in Australia where some Christians are coming out against the conservative and extreme Australian Christian Lobby. They have launched a petition to the Prime minister to making her aware that the Lobby does not have the support it pretends to.

The wording of the petition is:

We are Australian Christians, and we’d like you to know that the Australian Christian Lobby does not speak for us.

We believe that its endorsements and policy statements rarely represent a helpful contribution to political dialogue in Australia, and we urge you and your government to listen to a broader cross-section of the Australian Christian community.

We are much more diverse than the Australian Christian Lobby.

via Australian Christians against the ACL Petition.

See also:
Christians turn back on lobby
Australian Christian Lobby … I disown thee
Australian Christian Lobby’s prayer for prejudice in Victoria?

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Is there a role for science in morality? Ken Perrott Apr 28

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In our discussion of the science of morality commenters often assert that science may be able to describe why and how we are moral but it cannot make moral decisions for us. Or tell us what is right and wrong. Sometimes these commenters have their own motive — a covert or overt interest in promoting a religiously determined moral code and they don’t want another discipline intruding into ’their’ arena. At other times they may be reacting to a simplistic interpretation of the role of science. This is common in criticisms of The Moral Landscape (and Harris did not help by using the subtitle “How Science Can Determine Human Values”). In partial mitigation of Harris’s position he does make clear, often, that he is using ’science’ in a very general sense — including philosophy and history.

Emotions in human decisions

Our moral decisions are different to the apparently straightforward decisions a physical scientist might make relying on evidence. Logic and reasoning, and validation against reality. Being social animals things are never that simple for us. And we have evolved not to be a rational animal, more a rationalising one. Our decisions will usually involve our emotions and intuitions as well as evidence and reasoning. In fact research suggests that an emotional component is essential in decision-making. Where emotions are impaired people find decision-making impossible. We are also influenced by the moral attitudes of others, and in some situations a moral decision may involve a democratic process. Moral ideas get validated against society and not objective reality.

But the fact is human morality is now a very live area of scientific research and discussion. This is generally about how our morality works and its origins, and not using ’science’ as such to prove a moral position. But there is no doubt that an awareness of the science of morality may actually influence moral decision-making, particularly during public discussion and deliberation. Science indicates our morals are not simply ’relative’ (anything goes depending on our own feelings) or ’divinely’ commanded (our god tells us what is right and wrong — just accept it), or based on tradition. If that is publicly accepted then the proponents of ’divine’ commands, tradition, or relativism will have less influence on our moral deliberations.

Sure, our prejudices and emotions will still be involved. Our religious beliefs and cultural influence will also play a role. But there will be far more acceptance of discussion about facts and accepted ideas of what is good for society and individuals. In the past religion and tradition have been far too influential in such discussions. Hell, this example from a potential US presidential candidate shows they are still too influential (see Bachmann: God Told Me To Introduce Constitutional Amendment Prohibiting Same-Sex Marriage In MN). I think our moral progress has only been possible to the extent we have been able to override those influences.

Role of public deliberation

One argument that came through strongly for me in the Edge New Science of Morality  Seminar was the role of social or public deliberation of moral questions. (See The new science of morality, Is and ought and A scientific consensus on human morality) ) Particpation of a range of individuals helps make sure that prejudice and individual emotion don’t play a determining role. A group can be more rational than an individual. This indicates that groups and social decision-making may produce better moral, and hence legal, decisions than those made by individuals.

Of course, in the end our actions are made mostly by individuals. And very often these decisions and action are the result of unconscious moral decisions. But, as I pointed out in Foundations of human morality, our subconscious moral position is always changing. We are always learning and what we learn consciously becomes integrated into our subconscious. Similarly we are learning without deliberate intellectual consideration just by being a member of society, exposed to the changing moral zeitgeist through our entertainments and social contact. Just consider what influence the portrayal of women and gays has had on influence individual moral attitudes over the years.

Yes, there is an important role

So, I think the current interest in the science of morality is important. It’s important from the point of view of knowledge, of finding out and understanding more about our species and its behaviour. But I also think its important because it will help us be more rational about our moral deliberations and decisions.

That must be a good thing.

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Philosophical justifications for morality Ken Perrott Apr 26

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I will use this post to answer some of the more philosophical questions commenters have raised on my science of morality articles here and at the SciBlogs syndicated version. (Open ). Last time in Answering questions on morality I responded to some specific questions from a critical religious apologist.

One outline of my approach is in Foundations of human morality but I have discussed these ideas in many other posts.

Once again I thank all those who have critiqued my ideas — I have found the input valuable. And I welcome further criticisms

Are philosophical justifications required for morality?

John Wilkins says yes in his comment:

’If you argue for a position — such as a particular course of action being right or wrong — then no matter what you give as a reason for thinking it is right or wrong, the moment you introduce a prescription, a normative element, you need some irreducible missing premise to the effect that ‘you should [or should not] do X’. . . . To justify a course of action, you must, rationally, have a bridging principle of justification that is non-factual.’

John does not disagree with a scientific explanation of morality but says this:

’neither justifies nor has any moral force upon the actions of agents unless you introduce that ’thou shalt’ prescription.’ Then one needs a ’prescriptive premise.’

Alonzo Fyfe  at the Atheist Ethicist argues for an ’external standard’: What [our intuitions or morality] should be is determined by their conformity to this external standard.’

I think this approach is related to the is vs ought concept. It implies there is an objective, external, ought. And that we can not determine this ought, this prescription, from the facts of a situation. Personally I would find that approach more convincing if the proponents actually indicated where they get their “external standard” from, what the prescriptions are. But they never seems to. (No – ’god did it’ explanations don’t work — they never do).

We experience moral prescriptions

I think our automatic moral reactions, our designation of things being right and wrong, is very much prescriptive. Yet no conscious philosophy is required. No-one thinks of ’normative elements’ or ’irreducible premises.’

We experience our morality prescriptively — and largely unconsciously. Even when we rationalise to explain our reactions very few people are going to use these words or give a philosophical analysis. All this goes on in our brain and largely unconsciously. So at what stage during our unconscious moral reactions or our conscious moral deliberations do we refer to this ’external standard’ or use prescriptive premises? Some people may refer to such prescriptions during conscious moral discussions — but there is no evidence these exist objectively, separate from the individual or her culture.

Consider also the very different ’moral’ behaviours of different species. The females of some insects will kill and eat the male after coitus — our species doesn’t (although some men may feel there is a psychological parallel). Doesn’t this suggest that morality is at least species specific, perhaps not objective. Perhaps more to do with the actual organism or group of organisms.

Part of the motivation for desired ’external standards’, ’prescriptive justifications’, absolute or objective moral truths is the fact that our intuitions of right and wrong are so strong. They feel so real. But that doesn’t make them real, external or objective.

Maybe there is also a cultural pressure to think about external standards or prescriptions. PZ Myers raised this issue when he acknowledged that he had critiqued Harris’s book with mistaken interpretation of the is-ought argument (see Craig brings some clarity to morality?). As he puts it these issues are ’getting all twisted up in philosophical head-games based on misconceptions derived from the constant hammering of theological presuppositions in our culture.’

Then perhaps, related to both these influences, there is a common feeling that morality is just too important an issue to be determined by individuals. That there must be external standards or prescriptions.

Infinite regression of ’external standards’

I have also noticed another a common interpretation of Sam Harris’s arguments is that the ’external standard’ or moral prescriptions can be determined by science. (This is not exactly helped by him using the subtitle ’How science can Determine Human Values’). But quite a few reviewers have pointed out this simple transference of ’external standards’ or prescriptions from gods to science does nothing to solve the basic problem.  That whatever external standard is used, one will be caught in the infinite regression or requiring a further external standard to justify the chosen standard.

Both Fyfe and Kenan Malik (in Test-tube Truths) illustrate this by extending the  Euthyphro dilemma. This argues, in its modified form: “Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?” Which we can extend to any ’external standard’ as Fyfe does when he says:

’The answer to the Euthyphro argument in both cases is to argue that morality is to be found somewhere outside of God, or outside of  ‘”human instincts and intuitions’.’

And I add – or outside of any other external standard. Hence the infinite regression.

I think Malik has the answer:

’The desire to look either to God or to science to define moral values is a desire to set moral values in ethical concrete. It is a yearning for moral certainty, a fear that without external authority, humans will fall into the morass of moral relativism. But just as we do not need the false certainty of a divinely sanctified moral code, neither do we need the false certainty of a morality rooted in science.’

’Unless we wish to believe that values are simply plucked out of the sky, then we must accept that there is some relationship between the kinds of values that we hold, the kinds of beings that we are, and the kind of world in which we live. But while values can never be entirely wrenched apart from facts, neither can they be collapsed into facts. Humans are the bridge between facts and values. The significance of the Euthyphro dilemma is that it embodies a deeper claim: that concepts such as goodness, happiness and wellbeing only have meaning in a world in which conscious, rational, moral agents exist that themselves are capable of defining moral right and wrong and acting upon it. It is the existence of humans as autonomous moral agents that allows us to act as the bridge between facts and values.’ [my empahsis].

I think this is the answer to the problematic ’external standard’ of Fyfe and the ’bridging principle of justification that is non-factual’ of Wilkins. In one sense our problems have arisen because we have overestimated the importance of moral certainty. We therefore find it difficult to accept that our morality may not rest on external ’truths.’ Sometimes our moral decisions may not be obvious or may be ’fuzzy.’ Perhaps, in fact, our standard is internal. And it arises from our nature as sentient, conscious, intelligent social and empathetic beings.

But what about our negative intuitions?

This does need an answer. After all, history does show that sometimes our intuitions based on evolved instincts can have bloody consequences. An obvious issue is the ’them vs us’ problem. Sometimes described as the problem of expanding reciprocity.

This is a double-sided sword. On the one had our empathy and kin sympathy encourage us to protect and advance the interests of our ’in-group.’ On the other hand this often means conflict with the ’out-group.’ The morality of the ‘in-group’ may value  a warrior who kills a warrior from ’out-group’ who threatens their security. At a more mundane level a prevailing morality may actually encourage attitudes which are xenophobic or racist. Because of our natural ’in-group/out-group’ instincts.

The history of social development of our species has necessarily been one of expanding the boundaries between the ’in-group’ and ’out-group.’ This has required social mechanism to expand our morality from simple kin or clan considerations to wider city, regional, national or coalitional interests. Social structures, legal frameworks, religion and ideologies have assisted this. Religion, for example, enables expansion beyond national boundaries by pushing the boundary between them vs us to non-believers vs believers. Ideologies have done a similar thing based on ideological beliefs (eg., communism, democracy) or class interests (hence The Internationale).

So it is inevitable that intuitions wider than just ’good’ empathetic ones are involved in providing our ’internal standards.’ However, these ’standards’ are not simply the instinct or intuitions themselves. As social and intelligent beings our social, legal and moral structures may be based on our human natures (good and bad) but there are also the result of reasoned processing. Both individually and collectively.

As a species which has memories and is capable of planning we can look further ahead than simple satisfaction of instinctual requirements. We can postpone rewards, consider the long-term and wider social effects of our instinctual behaviours. We can apply our intuitional, in-built ’Golden Rule’ in a way that favours some intuitions over others. In fact, in a way that recognises our in-built ability for behaviour which we consider wrong, as well as right.

A realistic, human morality

Again I am sure some people will resist this analysis because it does not ’set moral values in ethical concrete’ or ensure ’moral certainty.’ But surely our history shows such certainty to often lead to tyranny. A more realistic appreciation of human morality is based in our own human nature and amenable to reasoning and deliberation. A morality which takes account of our real situations, is capable of improvement over time and is available to all — whatever the ideological or religious outlook.

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Answering questions on morality Ken Perrott Apr 22

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I want to spend a few posts answering some of the questions commenters have raised on my science of morality articles here and at the SciBlogs syndicated version (Open Parachute@ SciBlogs). See, for example, Foundations of human morality.

Those articles represent my thinking as a result of the New Science of Morality  Seminar (see The new science of morality, Is and ought and A scientific consensus on human morality) and the Great debate ’Can Science tell us Right from Wrong?’ (See Telling right from wrong? for more details of this debate and workshop). Effectively I have tried to integrate the psychological approach of the Edge seminar with the more philosophical and neurobiological approach of the Debate. The reflection was also stimulated by reading books by Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape), Patricia Churchland (Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality), Jonathan Haidt, Marc Hauser, Matt Ridley, Stephen Pinker and others.

I have been very thankful for the discussion the articles generated. It’s a great way of developing one’s ideas. Finding flaws, looking for alternatives. Even when the disagreement is a result of misunderstanding, realising where one’s arguments need clarifying or better explanation is very useful.

I do not doubt the discussion has significantly contributed to evolution of my ideas in this area.

Questions from a religious apologist

First I will deal with questions from Bnonn at Thinking Matters. His article (Scientist talks morality, slips on banana peel) was basically a straw man attack but did ask some specific questions. Some  are worth responding to.

Q1: How is my model ’improving?’

This was in response to my claim, in Foundations of human morality, that the model I describe ’may not satisfy those who wish for an absolute completely objective morality. But it is at least consistent, improving and logically supportable. It is objectively based.’

I think Bnonn has intentionally or unintentionally confused that claim. However I will answer his specific question.

Science is basically progressive in its knowledge. Over time its ideas and theories improve as we get more data from reality and do more testing and validating of our ideas against reality. In a sense our scientific knowledge is an imperfect, but ever improving, reflection of reality.

This will also be true of any scientific theory about human morality. The improvements in fields like anthropology, social psychology and neurobiology in recent years has made a scientific description of human morality possible. This will only improve with time and future research.

Q2: How does my model support moral positions?

Bnonn asks how I can ’support specific moral positions, over and against divine command theories? For example, if a divine command theorist says that it is morally wrong to sleep around, and an evolutionist says that it’s morally permissible because of this evolutionary model, why should we give more weight to the evolutionist?’

First let’s dispense with Bnonn’s confusion about ’evolutionists.’ My dictionary defines an evolutionist as someone who ’believes’ in a theory of evolution. Let’s leave aside problems with that word ’belief’ (technically I don’t ’believe in evolution’ — I ’accept’ evolutionary science). Science is not a belief system like religion. It doesn’t, or shouldn’t, have dogmas. “Evolutionist” is really not an appropriate term and I think Bnonn is using it here as a derogatory one. That is problematic for him because many of his mates who accept ’divine’ command theories also accept evolutionary science (or at least say they do).

Nor is the model of human morality I suggest a naïve ’evolutionary’ model as Bnonn suggests.  Rather it sees our morality as built on human instincts and intuitions which have developed during our biological, social and cultural evolution as social animals. We can develop strong intuitions of right and wrong and of social taboos which make use of our evolved instincts like purity, disgust, fear, reward, judgment, etc.

A scientific model of human morality can easily explain why we have strong intuitions of right and wrong and we unconsciously respond to specific situation by classifying them as right or wrong (’auto mode”). When we go through the intellectual exercise of considering novel and theoretical situations (’manual mode’) we accept our empathetic nature as a criteria. The Golden Rule — which I claim is, in effect, ’wired in.’ Part of human nature. Not surprising that some form or other of the Golden Rule has emerged in many human cultures.

I see no problem in arriving at arguments of support, or opposition, to specific moral positions. We seem to do that all the time.

Q3: Does my model deny a progressive approach to morality?

Bnonn sees my reference to a moral zeitgeist as claiming that historically humanity is improving morally and asks: ’but wouldn’t that contradict the model itself by implying some objective good towards which they are moving?’

I do say there is an objective basis to our morality in human nature. Particularly in our social and empathetic nature. This does give an objective intellectual basis, as well as an emotional one, for describing things as good and bad. So we can make judgements about moral progress.

Q4: Bnonn’s concern with ’sleeping around?’

A rather quaint expression. Surely he isn’t judging ones ability to sleep anywhere?

But I reject his assumption that my model assumes sexual promiscuity is ’morally permissible.’ Opposition to sexual promiscuity is common in human moral codes. One can see how this has arisen as part of the social and empathetic nature of our species. The need to protect and raise children who have a long period of dependency on parents provides a biological basis for that. It also helps explain why monogamy is a common social arrangement. Even in our modern society where old and irrelevant sexual restrictions have been abandoned because of their restrictions on human rights we have a moral and legal code which takes this biological necessity into account.

Rather than dogmatically demanding sexually promiscuity as Bnonn suggests, my model helps explain why we have such moral codes. Perhaps Bnonn’s ignorance here is more a matter of his perception that evolutionary science is ’evil.’

Q5: Are Humans hard-wired to “forcibly sleep around?”

Bnonn assumes my model implies humans are ’hardwired’ to ’forcibly sleep around’ (I assume he means rape) – so why is that not morally permissible?

Again he is misrepresenting my model. Surely it is clear why as a sentient, conscious, intelligent, social and empathetic species we should have developed moral codes which usually abhor rape. And as a social, empathetic species we usually developed laws and moral codes to prohibit it.

I think Bnonn may somehow be confusing a moral code with the fact that our evolutionary development has produced instincts and desires influencing our social interaction and ensuring reproduction. They are not the same thing.

Of course there are people who may give a full reign to some individual instincts, sexual desire, dominance in human relationships, etc., while ignoring other empathetic instincts. Our species has developed moral intuitions and legal codes specifically to handle such problems, not to promote them.

Q6: What is wrong with moral relativism?

Bnonn: ’Hasn’t evolution hardwired some of us for that to?’

No, it hasn’t. That is the point of my suggested model — to explain why we have moral codes. How these arise from our nature. Again, I suspect Bnonn is being distracted by his hatred for the word ’evolution.’

Moral relativism is not a fact of human wiring but an intellectual position which denies any objective basis to human morality. One that is sometimes used to justify an ’anything goes’ approach to specific moral questions. Without a scientific model like the one I suggest the field is wide open to ’moral relativism.’  Just imagine society trying to develop moral or legal codes without giving any credence to ’The Golden Rule” or our inbuilt empathy?

This was why I criticised ’divine’ command ethics: ’Any old moral positions can be supported by ’divine commands.’ Such justifications can sometimes lead to the worst sort of moral relativism.’ After all, if morality is determined by decree or command from on high, and not reason recognising human empathy and society, anything can be commanded. And the “divine” part acts to prevent any doubts or questions.

So, considering Bnonn’s obsession with ’sleeping around’ for example. Surely he knows that some religious sects have proclaimed such behaviour, particularly access of religious leaders to young women and children, on the basis of ’divine’ command ethics. Instructions from their god. Whereas it is perfectly natural for humans as a social, empathetic species to develop moral and legal restrictions against such behaviour. And not just for cultural and historical reasons. But because we are hardwired to appreciate the suffering we can cause others. We are empathetic beings.

Finally, I think Bnonn’s problems with my model lie in his emotional reaction to words like “secular” and “evolution.” Consequently he has made unwarranted assumptions about this model and been busy attacking straw men.

Hopefully these comments will help him to critique the real model I am proposing.


In a future post I will answer some of the more philosophical criticisms I have received.

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Problems with philosophers and theologians Ken Perrott Apr 20

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This looks like an interesting book: The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks. He delivered this year’s Science and Democracy Lecture at Havard University’s School of Design (see Learning to love the irrational mind | Harvard Gazette).

The other day, in , I referred to a problem some philosophers have with understanding human morality. So these quotes from the report of the lecture appealed to me:

“In a wide-ranging talk, Brooks laid out the conclusions he found while searching for an explanation for ’this amputation of human nature’ in politics and everyday life. What he found, he said, is that scientists who study the mind, rather than theologians or philosophers, are yielding the most interesting answers to questions of what constitutes character, ethics, and virtue.”

And, according to Brooks:

’If we base policy on a shallow view of human nature … we will design policies that are not fit for actual human beings,’ he said. ’We will have child-rearing techniques which continue to underemphasize the most important things in life. And we will have moral discussions that will remain vague and inarticulate.’

Definitely another book I will have to read.

Circular theological arguments

Local Christian apologists have tried to outdo each other with their partisan reviews of the recent debates between their hero, WL Craig, and Lawrence Krauss and Sam Harris. Interesting that they feel the need to debate scientists to justify their god beliefs.

However, Matt Flannagan, from the blog MandM, provided a nice little example of the sort of circular arguments theologians get into in their attempts to offer a divine foundation for human morality. He wrote:

“Goodness is best understood in terms of an exemplar, that good is identified with the perfect paradigm of a good person and that the goodness of everything else is measured by its resemblance to this paradigm. An analogy to this idea is the official ’metre stick’ that exists in France today. The metre stick is exactly one metre long, and the length in metres of every other length is determined by comparison with it. In the same way, God is both perfectly good and is the standard of goodness for everything else. . . . To claim God is good is to claim that he is truthful, benevolent, loving, gracious, merciful and just, and that he is opposed to certain actions such as murder, rape, torturing people for fun and so on.”

So humans have designated a standard metre. At one period this was defined by the distance between two lines on the International Prototype Metre kept at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures near Paris, France. In 1960  the metre was redefined in terms of the wavelength of light emitted by the krypton-86 isotope. And then in 1983 in terms of the speed of light. (I wonder if theologians have bothered updating their god as the standard of goodness over the years?)

Just as the International Prototype Metre was defined as the standard for a useful measurement unit by humans  our theologian has defined his god as a standard defined by humans for useful human moral values. This theologian has, along with most people, concluded that honesty, benevolence, mercy and opposition to murder, rape and torture are good human values. So he has invented an artificial “person”, an “International Prototype Good Person,”  to enable calibration!

But notice – this theologian knew these human values were good well before he constructed his prototype. The same  the rest of us know these values are good – because they are based on  human nature. As I said in Foundations of human morality humans are effectively wired for The Golden Rule.

For the life of me, though, I can’t see why this theologian needs to define an “International Prototype Good Person.” Values are qualitative, not quantitative. It’s not as if we have to transfer a measurement from one person to another. Morals are not like height or girth.

If we already know what is good, and use that knowledge to define a fictional good person, so that we can then use that fictional character to find out what is good aren’t we needlessly creating a middle man? And don’t all middlemen exploit the rest of us by clipping tickets, taking a percentage or a tithe?

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More on the science of morality Ken Perrott Apr 18

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I think we may be seeing the beginning of a new wave of popular science books on morality. Sam Harris‘s The Moral Landscape got wide coverage and sparked several high-profile debates on the subject (see The new science of morality, Is and ought, A scientific consensus on human morality, Waking up to morality, Can science shape human values?, Telling right from wrong?, Telling right from wrong?, and Craig brings some clarity to morality?).

Now we have Patricia Churchland‘s new book Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality. This came out at the end of March and I got my copy the other day. I have just read Chapter 1 and feel this will be an important book. In many ways it will probably complement The Moral Landscape because it deals clearly with some of the critiques made of Sam’s approach. Particularly those made by scientists and non-religious philosophers.

I hope it sells well. Churchland doesn’t have the high public profile that Harris has. But she is eminently qualified to cover the subject as a philosopher with a special interest in neuroscience. And the time is ripe for this sort of coverage.

I just hope some fire and brimstone Christian apologists attack the book (as with Stephen Hawking’s The Grand Design). That would help get it noticed!

It’s also very readable – always important in a popular science book.

A problem with philosophers

I have despaired at much of the current philosophical discussion of human morality. And the assumption that it is a subject exclusively for philosophy and not science. In fact one is often accused of “scientism” for daring to suggest a role for science.  But I think the philosophical discussion is often  artificial – precisely because it does not take note of modern scientific findings. Churchland makes a similar criticism:

“a lot of contemporary moral philosophy, though venerated in academic halls, was completely untethered to the ’hard and fast’; that is, it had no strong connection to evolution or to the brain, and hence was in peril of floating on a sea of mere, albeit confident, opinion. And no doubt the medieval clerics were every bit as confident.”

So her stance is really welcome:

“The complaint that a scientific approach to understanding morality commits the sin of scientism does really exaggerate what science is up to, since the scientific enterprise does not aim to displace the arts or the humanities. . . . . On the other hand, it is true that philosophical claims about the nature of things, such as moral intuition, are vulnerable. Here, philosophy and science are working the same ground, and evidence should trump armchair reflection. In the present case, the claim is not that science will wade in and tell us for every dilemma what is right or wrong. Rather, the point is that a deeper understanding of what it is that makes humans and other animals social, and what it is that disposes us to care about others, may lead to greater understanding of how to cope with social problems. That cannot be a bad thing.”

The is-ought problem

She disposes of this problem in the introduction, thankfully. It seems such a hurdle for those who have criticised Harris’s book. Churchland describes the origin of the “is-ought” mantra in Hume’s’ writing and how this has been misunderstood and misinterpreted – partly intentionally. She describes the idea ’you cannot derive an ought from an is’ as a “smackdown of a naturalistic approach to morality.” And asks how it could acquire philosophical standing.

Partly this is because many moral philosophers objected to Hume’s naturalism and “so they hung naturalism by the heels on Hume’s is/ought observation.” And today’s philosophers of religion are of course playing that one as hard as they can.

But the other reason is semantic – again, very relevant today:

Deriving a proposition in deductive logic strictly speaking requires a formally valid argument; that is, the conclusion must deductively follow from the premises, with no leeway, no mere high probability (e.g., ’All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, so Socrates is mortal’). Assuming the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. Strictly speaking, therefore, one cannot derive (in the sense of construct a formally valid argument for) a statement about what ought to be done from a set of facts about what is the case. “

But:

“In a much broader sense of ’infer’ than derive you can infer (figure out) what you ought to do, drawing on knowledge, perception, emotions, and understanding, and balancing considerations against each other. We do it constantly, in both the physical and social worlds. . . . What gets us around the world is mainly not logical deduction (derivation). . . . In any case, that most problem-solving is not deduction is clear.”

Epistemologically the distinction between inference and deduction is important. In ’Other ways of knowing’ — some sense at last I pointed out that deductive logic:

“Produces the broadest, most complete and most consistent results. The methods are relatively simple and they involve few, precisely defined, predictions which are easily validated.”

But:

“Logical claims are about the meaning of concepts, not details, and this limits the applicability of the method. It is also easily (and often) manipulated. For example logical arguments are presented as arbitrary lists (proving only that the ’logician’ can count) or based on shonky premises — chosen to produce the desired answer. This often happens with people arguing for strong ideological prejudices.”

A prime example is that presented by WL Craig and his constant use of “irrelevant syllogisms.” His fanboys in the Christian apologetic movement are caught up in the same approach in their attacks on “scientism” and the role of science on questions like morality, evolution and cosmology.

“Going Nuclear”

This putting all one’s eggs in the basket of deductive logic appears to be characteristic of the naive philosophy promoted by religious apologetics. How often do we hear them attack sceptics for not being able to “prove” that we are not a brain in a vat, that we even exist, that we aren’t electrons in a Matrix!

On the one hand this is just the logical fallacy of “going nuclear,” or trusting in Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Because if the sceptic’s arguments are restricted to the confines of deductive logic, so then must the protagonists. On the other hand they get around this withy the shonky logic and false premises I referred to above.

So, Churchland concludes:

“In sum, from the perspective of neuroscience and brain evolution, the routine rejection of scientific approaches to moral behavior based on Hume’s warning against deriving ought from is seems unfortunate, especially as the warning is limited to deductive inferences. The dictum can be set aside for a deeper, albeit programmatic, neurobiological perspective on what reasoning and problem-solving are, how social navigation works, how evaluation is accomplished by nervous systems, and how mammalian brains make decisions”

And that is what the book is about.

See also

A special The Pod Delusion podcast of a recent discussion at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford between Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris on Harris’ new book The Moral Landscape. [Direct MP3 Link]

Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins discuss the science of morality

Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality

Video of Pat Churchland’s contribution to the Great debate ’Can Science tell us Right from Wrong?’ (See Telling right from wrong? for more details of this debate and workshop).

A philosopher comments on science and morality

TSN: Patricia Smith Chuchland, posted with vodpod

Video of Pat Churchland’s Gillford Lecture: Morality and the Mammalian Brain

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n_PtnBacAP0&feature=player_embedded

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Selling the family silver! Ken Perrott Apr 15

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Vostok-1 recovery capsule

Bloody hell – this was a shock. Sotheby’s has auctioned  Vostok: Earth’s First Spaceship!

I got this in a tweet from fellow SciBlogger Aimee. But would the Russians be selling of Yuri Gagarin’s space capsule? And on the 50th anniversary of his historic flight?

Possibly. Anyone familiar with the Rogernomics period in New Zealand knows we have done such things. And the ACT Party would willingly do that again. But the Russians selling of such a historic trophy? Sure they have had their economic problems but even so.

These sort of treasures shoulkd not be in private hads. They should be available to the public.

I know that the capsule was still in Moscow in the 1980s – I saw it at the Cosmos Pavilion in the Economic Achievements Exhibition. (It was well-padded but very pokey. And burned on the outside).

After checking that it wasn’t April 1 I read some of the information supplied in the Sotheby’s catalogue. And information on the item itself  THE VOSTOK 3KA-2 SPACESHIP.

Well it did sell – for 2,882,500 USD. And the sales information had quite an interesting history of the spacecraft and Gagarin’s lauch. However, it was only after I had read through a bit before I got to the relevant information:

“The Vostok spaceship flown with the cosmonaut-mannequin Ivan Ivanovich, 25 March 1961, as the final fail-safe and test mission prior to Yuri Gagarin’s first manned space flight just eighteen days later.

Vostok 3KA-2 is not a prototype but an exact twin of Gagarin’s Vostok 3KA-3 capsule, which was later designated Vostok 1.

Vostok 3KA-2 was a critical linchpin of the world’s first manned space program, not only providing the “green light” for the first manned space flight, but afterwards serving for training at the Cosmonaut Training Center, Star City, and later providing the design model for Zenit and other spy satellites manufactured at the Central Specialized Design Bureau in Kuybyshev.

This is the only Vostok spaceship outside of Russia and the only one in private hands; all other surviving Vostok capsules are in permanent Russian museum collections.”

So – that’s a relief! It was Vostok 3KA-2 that was auctioned – not Gagarin’s Vostok 3KA-3 capsule – later renamed Vostok-1.

Yuri Gagarin with daughters

Vostok 3KA-2 was launched about 3 weeks before Gagarin’s flight as a test run. It carried a mannequin Ivan Ivanovich. And there is a bit of a story about the local peasants’ who came on the scene as it was being recovered.

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Craig brings some clarity to morality? Ken Perrott Apr 12

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Interesting! Is there a second wave of interest in Sam Harris’s ideas on human morality?

Sam Harris

Sure, many religious apologists really didn’t want to challenge these ideas until WL Craig had said his bit – preferably by way of a debate with Harris. And they got that debate a few days back. But that is hardly serious – they are reacting more like faithful fans at a boxing match. A common problem with debates. Even Craig appears to have a realistic understanding of  his cheerleaders (although he attributes the phenomenon to “the free thought subculture” and not his own fans).

PZ Myers

But I wonder if that debate might have initiated some rethinking by some of Sam’s original nonreligious critics. Here’s an interesting comment by PZ Myers in his blog post Harris v Craig. He admits to having felt “bugged” after his first reading of The Moral Landscape.’ Then adds:

“I kept trying to make, I think, a judgment based on whether we can declare an absolute morality based on rational, objective criteria. I was basically making the same sort of internal argument that William Lane Craig was making in his debate at Notre Dame, and it’s fundamentally wrong – it’s getting all twisted up in philosophical head-games based on misconceptions derived from the constant hammering of theological presuppositions in our culture.”

I think this is a very perceptive comment. It helps explain  my disappointment with some of Sam’s non-religious critics who fell back on the mantra that “you can’t get an ought from an is.”

Obviously Sam Harris won’t have the full story but he has made an important contribution with his book. Important because he has refused to be taken in by that philosophical mantra. Also because he has mobilised a much-needed debate among philosophers, scientists and the nonreligious about morality. And particularly consideration of the problem of moral relativism.

But Myers is also raising the problem of how theology and religious philosophy has been able to influence even the nonreligious and create “misconceptions derived from the constant hammering of theological presuppositions in our culture.”

So good for you PZ. You were able to recognise where you made a mistake. Perhaps the debate format has in this case actually had a  positive effect. PZ says:  “It was very helpful to see Harris’s views presented in contrast to a dogmatic fool like Craig, and suddenly it was clear where the truth lies.”

And thanks for helping the rest of us see an important problem. Theology and religious philosophy may currently have little influence in the natural sciences. (although they still motivate external attacks such as the legal attempts to impose the teaching of creation). But their dead hand still has an influence in areas like philosophy.

It’s important to recognise this and be aware when it sometimes affects even the nonreligious philosophers. Or scientists who accept some popular philosophical ideas uncritically.

See also: Foundations of human morality.

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Foundations of human morality. Ken Perrott Apr 11

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How did he know it was the right thing to do?

Sam Harris caused a bit of a stir with his recent book The Moral Landscape.’ While it upset religious apologists (gods didn’t come into his argument) it also caused debate among philosophers, scientists and fellow atheists.  Clearly his contribution was welcome and useful — but not all agreed with his ideas.

Most, but not all, of the criticisms relate to the question of a foundation or basis for human morality. I will leave aside, for the moment, the Christian apologist positions – which were recently re-rehearsed by WL Craig in a debate Is Good From God? — this caused a flurry amongst apologists who approach all of Craig’s debates like bigoted and vocal fans at a boxing match. This position relies on a naïve dogma that their god provides a ’sound foundation for objective moral values and duties’ — an axiomatic assumption which is never proven and is problematic even for many Christians.

Human flourishing as moral foundation?

Sam Harris appears to argue that one does have a basis for human morality, and determining right from wrong, in human flourishing or maximizing human well-being. And he provides clear examples where one can determine good situations from bad situations using that criteria. ’The ruthless misogyny and religious bamboozlement of the Taliban’ in Afghanistan is obviously a bad one.

But many critics feel this is inadequate. Possibly because terms like ’flourishing’ and ’well-being’ seem hedonistic. That good is all about pleasure.  People feel that good is more than that. It involves some abstract, high thinking, concepts — more than pleasure and pain. There also seems to be a common feeling that human flourishing is too arbitrary. That different people might define this in different ways. That right and wrong are concepts more absolute than that. Harris himself says of his use of the words ’flourishing’ and ’well-being’ ’I don’t know of any better terms with which to signify the most positive states of being to which we can aspire.’

One can argue that a moral logic can arrive at a more ’absolute’ or ’objective’ morality. That morality can be seen as something moral absolute because it can be arrived at logically. Perhaps moral laws are a bit like arithmetic?

Moral assumptions as ’brute facts’?

And there has been the position that some moral positions just have to be assumed, accepted, as basic. They can’t be proved.  Erik J. Wielenberg, for example, argues that ’objective morality rests on a foundation composed of brute ethical facts.’ These have ’have no explanation outside of themselves’ They just are. ’They need not be inferred from other things that we know.’ This strikes me as a bit like a Clayton’s morality — the god-like foundation for morality you have when you don’t have a god. It is basically as good as, or as bad as, the moral foundation advanced by the Christian apologist, because it is assumed and unproven by logic or evidence.

I believe one has onlyhalf the picture if discussion is limited to philosophy and logic. Gods don’t add anything — except to provide a justification which, being “holy” or “divine,”  can’t be questioned. Sam goes one better by at least providing an easily understood foundation. Perhaps if we use different words, get away from limitations of pleasure and pain, bring is some higher ideal, this will be more acceptable.

To me this still suffers from ignoring the real world. It ignores the facts staring us in our face – the nature of humans and how they evolved. And the nature of human morality in practice and its evolution. I think we should go beyond philosophical and logical consideration of human morality to a more scientific discussion of the subject. One which seeks a foundation for human morality in humans themselves and in our relationship to reality.

We need to recognize that human morality is intimately tied up with human nature. Morality is more than a philosophical or logical question for us. It is an emotional one. Our intuitions and subconscious are involved, perhaps more so in most situations than our intelligence, reasoning and logic.

Moral intuitions

Humans have very strong moral intuitions. We react reflexively to situations – we have to. There is not enough time to go through logical exercises of reasoning when lives may depend on our reactions. Sure, we may try to explain our behavior after the event but research shows this is more rationalization of our actions than a replay of the processes that went in our brain. Processes which we don’t usually have access to anyway.

Our moral intuitions are adaptive and incorporate out adaptive intuitions. Feelings of purity, disgust, fear, guilt, etc. Perhaps the strongest intuitions we have are intuitions of right and wrong. We may not know why something is wrong but we have extremely strong feelings that it is. These intuitions of right and wrong are so strong that it is understandable that some might see them as somehow inviolate, absolute – objective even. The sort of thing one hands over to a god if you think that way. Or even personalises in a little imp (our consciounce) who sits on our shoulder warning and encouraging.

But, the last 500 years or so of experience of the progress of science surely tell us ’god did it’ (or little imps) explanations get us nowhere. The old creation myths don’t explain our origins or the origin of the earth and the universe. Neither do they explain the origins of, or offer a foundation for, our morality.

So, with this picture we have concepts of right and wrong – intuitively extremely strong concepts. Ones we might even feel as objective or absolute, although they are part of our own human nature.  Rather than being absolute or objective — they just feel that way. For very good evolutionary reasons.

My critics may argue that this still does not explain good human behaviour. That people could have intuitions which bias them to bad behaviour as much as good behaviour. I just don’t think that accords with the facts of our evolution or nature of our brain.

Brain mapping produces empathy

Our species has evolved as a sentient, conscious, intelligent, social and empathetic species. This has consequences for the physiology of our brain and its interaction with our body, the external world and other humans.

How does this work? Our brain is continually mapping ’images’ (visual, audio, memories, feelings, sensory, etc.). These reflect inputs from external objects and internally, from our body and coded memories from other parts of our brain. We have continually mapped images related to emotions and feelings, to our movements and our perceptions. But as an intelligent and conscious animal these also relate to memories and plans as well as each other. Consequently we also map imaginary things. Plans, memories and speculations.

These in themselves, because of connections to visceral and moral inputs and actions, also cause emotional and physical responses.  We can feel and emote when we rehearse a real memory, imagine a possible sad event and read a sad story. We can train our motor responses by imagining an exercise or physical action — something professional athletes, and sports psychiatrists, are well aware of.

This mapping and interaction with feelings, body responses and imagination also operates for events and situations we see. Our mapped imagination is similar to our mapped observation.  Consequently we feel another’s embarrassment, pain and happiness. It really is as if we were in their shoes when we see or hear about the experiences.  This provides a physiological basis for empathy. We literally can feel for others, even if the sensations may be reduced somewhat from a direct experience.

Golden rule wired in, foundational

Humans are literally wired for the Golden Rule — to treat others as we wish to be treated. It’s built in. It’s all part of being a social and empathetic animal. We evolved to be like this. I can’t actually imagine how a conscious, intelligent creature like humans, living in an extended society and interacting continuously with others, could be anything but empathetic. Unless of course there were pathological reasons — as there will be for some people.

All this means that we are empathetic moral creatures by nature. Our morality is inbuilt — it doesn’t come from an external source. We don’t rely on an ’objective’ or ’absolute’ morality exisiting somewhere out there in the void or in the hands of a mythical supernatural creature.

Some might object that this explains what goes on in our brain but it doesn’t guarantee that our moral decisions are ’correct.’ I agree, but it does offer a foundation for applying reason and logic to situations. In principle we can logically determine what is ’correct,’ based on our subjective feelings of empathy, our wired in ’Golden Rule.’ We don’t have to rely on an axiomatic ’human flourishing’ (or a god) foundation. We have a built-in human empathy foundation. And this can encompass higher feelings and thoughts than basic hedonistic ones like personal pleasure and pain.

Because most of the body’s management occurs at the unconscious level our morality largely operates at that level too. Morally we operate in the camera’s equivalent of ’auto’ mode.  Of course we can switch to ’manual’ mode. This would be no good for the day-to-day automatic reflex actions we have to accommodate. But for the consideration of ’what if’ situations, debating possible laws or social rules, or considering new and intriguing moral dilemmas we may face, the ’manual,’ conscious, mode would switch in. We would consciously deliberate on the issues.

Moral education and zeitgeist

I think there is an important inter-relationship between our ’auto’ and ’manual’ modes. Between our unconscious reflex actions and our intelligent, reasoned consideration of specific moral situations. These are not separated from each other — they influence each other. Obviously our ’auto’ mode may well interfere with our reasoning, may bring in prejudice or bias. This is inevitable for any such consideration — its part of being human. Decision making by group interaction can help to ensure more objective decisions.

But this relationship also works in the other direction. Our reasoned, rational deliberations can also lead to changes in our unconscious responses. The conscious, reasoned deliberations could, as it were, lead to re-wring of our subconscious. When we learn to ride a bike the deliberate conscious attention to learning is similar to the reasoning and deliberation of the ’manual’ moral mode. Thereafter the bike riding skill becomes incorporated into our subconscious. If by chance we have to update that skill (change from a ’penny farthing’ to a bicycle or old bicycle to a ten-speed or mountain bike) the conscious learning updates our subconscious skill.

Overt cultural learning

This updating of unconscious moral skills, or learning of new ones, is not restricted to our own internal mental deliberations. There are also less overt cultural influences. As social attitudes change they get reflected in cultural presentations, film, TV, books, etc. These in turn overtly ’update’ the moral skill of the viewer or reader, of members of society.

So we can get changes on the moral views of society both through the conscious deliberations and debates of the more socially active members of society. But also through the unconscious assimilation of these new moral skills by the less active majority who unconsciously acquire these from the cultural exposures.

That is why there is a moral zeitgeist. A continual upgrading of our moral skills in modern developing societies.

While the trending moral zeitgeist is not conscious for most members of society it is influenced by the conscious moral deliberations and logic of the more active people. These include the artists, writers, and directors as well as the natural and social scientists.

Examples

Consider some examples familiar to my generation. In the 1950s a common moral attitude in this country was that it was wrong for married women to work. Especially women with children. In this decade women very often feel it is wrong not to work, even when they have children.

In the old days sex outside marriage was morally wrong. Everyone did it – but this created a lot of guilt because it was wrong. And those caught out by pregnancy were considered social outcasts. There were “shotgun” weddings, unhappy marriages. Young women were quietly sent to the countryside to give birth, children were secretly adopted, etc.

Nowadays it is perfectly normal for couples to live together without marriage. It is not wrong.

In the old days homosexuality was abhorrent. It was definitely wrong and evoked feelings of disgust. Nowadays this is completely different. Most people do not see it as wrong. Different sexual orientations are accepted in society without judgment.

In the old days everyone (almost everyone) stood for the Queen in theatres before the film. I can remember the strong hostility directed at me and my mates who refused to stand. We were considered wrong. Nowadays we just don’t get that indignity imposed on us when we attend the cinema.

I am sure readers can think of plenty of other examples.

The “god did it’ foundation

The arguments presented by Craig and other religious apologists for a god-based moral foundation may not be logical. They may not even be very applicable to many Christians. But the do lead to justifications and dogmatism on moral issues.

Believers will always debate which particular moral instruction from popes, ministers, imams, Rabbis and holy books, must be obeyed. This is one of the driving forces for the existence of so many religions. But the fact that such instructions are considered ’holy’ and infallible, that the represent ’divine commands,’ leads to justification of moral codes which are completely out of step with reason, logic and evidence.

So the idea of a divine foundation for morality provides religion with a way of resisting the moral zeitgeist, refusing to consider evidence and reason. This explains why religions on the whole are morally conservative. Advancing ancient, often discredited, ideas of morality and resisting modern thinking. Just consider issues like women’s rights, acceptance of different sexual orientations, etc.

It can also mean that people growing up ain a strong religious environment, particularly a cult, do not learn to be morally autonomous. Instead of developing a morality based on themselves they rely on the diktat and instruction of their leaders and “holy” books. Mature adults can then have problems operating by themselves in the real world and society. In a sense they are morally immature.

Finally, because a morality imposed by instruction and justified by ’divine commands’ and ’holy’ scriptures and leaders, can be divorced completely from evidence, reason and rational consideration it can end up being arbitrary. Rather than have an objective basis in human nature and the facts of real situations, it may depend purely on religious whim. ’Right and wrong is what our god says it is. And he says what we want him to.’

The model I have described above may not satisfy those who wish for an absolute completely objective morality. But it is at least consistent, improving and logically supportable. It is objectivley based. In contrast any old moral positions can be supported by ’divine commands.” Such justifications can sometimes lead to the worst sort of moral relativism.

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Church rejects power of prayer! Ken Perrott Apr 08

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A humourous little clip from a past issue of the CLARKE COUNTY DEMOCRAT

Texas beer joint sues church…

In a small Texas town, ( Mt. Vernon ) Drummond’s bar began construction on a new building to increase their business.. The local Baptist church started a campaign to block the bar from opening with petitions and prayers. Work progressed right up till the week before opening when lightning struck the bar and it burned to the ground.

The church folks were rather smug in their outlook after that, until the bar owner sued the church on the grounds that the church was ultimately responsible for the demise of his building, either through direct or indirect actions or means.

The church vehemently denied all responsibility or any connection to the building’s demise in its reply to the court.

As the case made its way into court, the judge looked over the paperwork. At the hearing he commented, ’I don’t know how I’m going to decide this, but as it appears from the paperwork, we have a bar owner who believes in the power of prayer, and an entire church congregation that does not.’

via Texas beer joint sues church… | www.clarkecountydemocrat.com | Clarke County Democrat.

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