Critique of TSW Part 24f The Mind-Brain Muddle: Ethics

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Bill’s belief in free will gives him big trouble in sorting out the difference between objectivism and subjectivism.

I am ever so grateful to Bill Westmiller, whose comments are marked "BW: ". The quotes marked “TSW: “are from "The Scientific Worldview" and my comments are marked "[GB: ".

The Mind-Brain Muddle (Part 6 of 7)

TSW:  "... if only one reaction is possible for each movement, then actions seen as altruistic must be regarded as the only ones possible under existing conditions."

BW: In which case, there is no such thing as ethics. If humans are just "atoms" bouncing against each other in pursuit of equilibrium, then there can be no "guidelines" for human behavior: you always do what you have to do. No human action can be considered altruistic or selfish, since those are motives in the pursuit of beneficial objectives (either for self or others). By your characterization, humans can't chose to benefit self or others, they must do what they are required to do. Whatever they do is "correct" and necessary, so no human action is good or bad. The serial killer is just as good as the creative inventor.

[GB: Sorry, but ethics are road maps to appropriate behavior. People find them extremely useful whether they believe they have free will or not—makes no difference. The map will get you to the same place regardless. We determinists have all kinds of guidelines (that is why we are still alive). We judge behaviors as altruistic, selfish, good, or bad just like normal folks, which is what we are required to do by the causal chain that determines our behaviors. Our unfree will has trained us to lock up those serial guys so they won’t harm us or anyone else. Our decisions each have an infinite number of physical, material causes that we can never hope to discern, although we will not deny that they have occurred.]

TSW:  "... it all depends on the observer’s point of view."

BW: Subjectivism. But that's just an illusion, as you describe it: no action a person takes is motivated by their point of view (about ethics or anything else): every action is necessary.

[GB: Sorry, Bill, but a person’s “point of view” is a very real entanglement of nervous interconnections in the brain. Every “action a person takes is motivated by their point of view.” A dead brain has no point of view and no motivation. Again, you seem to be thinking that the alternative might be some kind of magical, free, motivation floating around in the air. I guess you would need something like that to be a believer in free will. Maybe this will help: The word “motivated” suggests a physical cause, as in Newton’s Second Law of Motion. What gets the ball rolling? Motivation is required for action. That is why motives are of primary concern in detective work.]

TSW:  Whitehead ('in one of his better moments'): "Every organism requires an environment of friends, partly to shield it from violent changes, and partly to supply it with its wants."

BW: Except Whitehead's characterization isn't consistent with your description. One can't acquire "friends" unless they have good will or respect for your actions. That isn't possible, since none of your actions are chosen, so there can be no relationship based on good will or respect. Anyone "friendly" to you *must* be friendly: they have no choice in the matter. So, Whitehead's premise that all organisms (specifically, people) "need" friends does not require that they *seek* friends, by any means or mode of conduct. By your formulation, they *have to be* friends, irrespective of whether you want them as friends or they want to be friends; totally independent of anything you or they might do or say, intend or desire.

[GB: Huh? This was one of the few times that Whitehead was correct. Again, it looks like your free will idea has once again gotten the better of you. Your statement clearly shows the resulting confusion and error of your analysis. Like other indeterminists, you apparently are attempting to put “choices” on some non-existent, imaginary, higher non-physical plane. Again, return to univironmental determinism, the observation that what happens to a portion of the universe is determined by the infinite matter in motion within and without. Even without my physical or your magical choices, some microcosms will find themselves in a more favorable macrocosm than others. The ones existing in a “friendly” (cocktail party?) macrocosm are likely to survive longer than the ones in an “antagonistic” (battlefield?) macrocosm.] 

BW: Standing alone, Whitehead's statement is an assertion of natural *selfishness*. He says you only create the illusion of being altruistic because you need others in order to achieve your own security and obtain values from them: selfishness. So, on his statement alone, there are no ethics, only illusion, subterfuge, deception, and exploitation. And you call his statement a "better moment"?

[GB: Gee, you sure got a bunch of stuff out of his simple innocuous statement about how nice it is to have friends. Are you sure there wasn’t a bit of Rorschach at work there? One can always see other’s behavior as either good or bad. In scientific analysis, we try to avoid making such judgments. Words such as “selfishness,” “altruism,” “good,” and “bad,” often say more about the person using those terms than it does about the person they are used upon. That is why scientists such as Margaret Mead and Jared Diamond avoid those terms when studying foreign cultures. Their job was descriptive, not prescriptive. There may be occasion to be prescriptive—even a radical social activist, but we should not claim that our “good” and “bad” proclamations have any foundation in scientific analysis.]   

TSW:  "Sociobiologists have interpreted this as a genetic rather than a spatial relationship. By their reckoning your genes somehow prompt you to be the most altruistic to those with whom you share the most genes in common."

BW: What they're claiming is not that genes themselves are "little buggers" that motivate altruism, but that having genes in common (being one of a "kind") facilitates "empathy". That is probably true for vertebrate offspring (though not every organism), since children have a natural affinity for their mother (as noted above), who suckles and coddles them. So, they equate survival and pleasure with the maternal (to some degree paternal) relationship ... which automatically gets applied to others of the same "kind" (species). Genes don't "know" or "care" about anything, self or other: they are inanimate chemicals.

[GB: Remember that the horrible title of Dawkin’s book is “The Selfish Gene.” Now tell me again that he didn’t really mean that. Actually, my main beef with all this stuff is that behavior is motion and motion cannot be inherited. Behavior is a univironmental interaction between a microcosm and its macrocosm. The behavior never occurs unless both the microcosm and the macrocosm have properties and motions that allow the microcosm to move in a particular way. One can inherit genes and perhaps whole neurological scripts with algorithms that swing into action when triggered by a change in the macrocosm. This is analogous to your computer, which does not do anything until you turn it on. Although infinitely more complicated, the relationships you describe are not the only ones possible. Adopted children perform all the behaviors you mentioned and our relationships with other species often are not all the different either. As I maintained in "The Scientific Worldview," the love (pleasure association) and altruism displayed in all these relationships is more dependent on physical distance than anything to do with genes.]

BW: Of course, it is true that sentients (conscious vertebrates) "share" more with those in proximity. That's just a physical reality: if they don't ever encounter a particular member of their species, how can they have any "feelings" about them at all?

[GB: Now you are getting somewhere.]

Next: Ethics (Part 7 of 7)

cotsw 055


Westmiller said...

GB: "... We judge behaviors as altruistic, selfish, good, or bad just like normal folks, which is what we are required to do by the causal chain that determines our behaviors ..."

I view that kind of judgement to be a "magical, free, motivation, floating around in the air" concept. You don't know how you judge, why you judge, or whether it motivates you to act: it's just a "causal chain", which you can "never hope to discern". A mystical process of infinitely regressing "motivators" running around in your brain.


I'm not arguing for a human will free of reality or causation, but rather a mental capacity to make rational judgments based on objective evidence ... a capacity that we can choose to use ... or not.

GB: "Huh? ... Like other indeterminists, you apparently are attempting to put 'choices' on some non-existent, imaginary, higher non-physical plane."

We are animals and can choose to act like animals, simply responding to instincts and vague impressions: acting without thinking. At some point in our development, humans become aware of the unique [physical] capacity to engage in a different process: deliberation. We can discover how that process works, what evidence is reliable, what logical conclusions are possible, and the long-term efficacy of our potential actions.

We can chose to be "free" of our animal "nature", or the "nurture" we acquire from others. We can be sapient, making independent judgments about what is good or bad conduct in reality. We can exercise the sapient capacity for language to "test" our judgments against the arguments or perceptions of other humans.

That's what we're doing here.

GB: "... One can always see other’s behavior as either good or bad. In scientific analysis, we try to avoid making such judgments."

I don't see anything unscientific about validating evidence or applying logic to our own potential acts or those of others. We've agreed that racism is wrong [prior article]. Perhaps you're depending entirely on some vague sentiment, inherited animalistic empathy, or the instructions of your parents. I prefer to review the facts of the matter, validate them with experience, and arrive at a logical conclusion that racism is destructive to both the subject and object.

Which is more "mystical"?

Glenn Borchardt said...

[GB: Bill, you seem to have a problem understanding mysticism, which, according to Webster, is “a religious practice based on the belief that knowledge of spiritual truth can be gained by praying or thinking deeply”. That is, mysticism is just another word for immaterialism, the opposite of my new definition for the First Assumption of Science, materialism (The universe displays only two basic phenomena: matter and the motion of matter).]

BW: “I'm not arguing for a human will free of reality or causation…”

[GB: Glad to see you are gradually changing your mind. Determinists do not deny that we can make choices—that would be silly. We make those choices as microcosms, portions of the universe, subject to all the submicrocosms within and supermicrocosms without. None of this is mystical. It is 100% materialism.

Nonetheless, I like your bringing up many of the contradictions faced by indeterminists. For instance, calling mental activity “a mystical process of infinitely regressing ‘motivators’" is particularly instructive. Indeterminists like to take advantage of the infinite nature of the universe to hypothesize that causes not known are “mystical,” when they simply are causes too. Some even use the Copenhagen interpretation in claiming that quantum mechanics supports free will.

But the free will argument, like the “soul” argument, is religious and will get you into all kinds of trouble in science and day-to-day living. We see this in your statement that “We can chose to be "free" of our animal "nature", or the "nurture" we acquire from others.” This is impossible. Carried to extreme, mystics have attempted to be less “animal-like” by becoming celibate, with the Shakers going extinct as a result. Attempting to reach the imagined higher level of the mystic is a complete waste of precious seconds.

It is fine that you want to be “sapient”—we all do what we can, but our proclamations about ethics are no better or worse than others. I agree that we all make “independent judgments about what is good or bad conduct in reality.” Ethics are made by everyone and are continually evolving. Nevertheless, there is no highest shelf that holds the final, logical, ethical grail. Harsh judgments on the previous “animal-like” ethics of our barbaric ancestors are easy to make in hindsight. Someday we will see today’s Big Bang Theory, regressive physics, and reactionary politics as barbaric and unethical.

I agree that there is nothing “unscientific about validating evidence” with regard to ethics. Nonetheless, in our scientific capacities we are not allowed to use the words “good” and “bad,” which makes science useless in making ethical choices. Again, science is objective, not subjective. Science does not (or should not) have contradictions, but ethics does, making logic useless as well. Ethics says that we should love our relatives and hate thieves. Each of us has to decide whether to continue loving our relatives after they have been convicted of theft. That decision is infinitely complicated. It is not possible to reduce it to a few finite factors that will produce a logical choice that will satisfy all Homo sapiens for all time. With ethical decisions, it is not truly possible “to review the facts of the matter, validate them with experience, and arrive at a logical conclusion” that even logicians and scientists would agree with. That is because each person has a unique worldview based on unique experiences. Each person, being infinitely complex, will weight various facts differently, coming to decisions inexplicable to indeterminists who assume absolutism and finity. That is why ethical decisions, like political decisions, are experiments. Because of uncertainty, we can never predict the outcome with 100% accuracy. That is not mysticism. It is reality.]