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

Blog 20141224 

Bill once again mixes scientific analysis with politics to ill effect.

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 7 of 7)

TSW:  "The real aim of the sociobiological analysis of altruism is a weather-beaten political one: to furnish the pretext for relegating the responsibility for social control entirely to the individual."

BW: I detect the scent of Marxism, a natural consequence of assuming that altruism IS morality and that social control is the only legitimate objective of human action. The individual is nothing (since he is automatically selfish) and the collective is everything (because it flows toward an equilibrium of needs).

[GB: Rorschach anyone? That makes no sense. The microcosm of the individual and the microcosm of the collective both have needs and exert social control to get them.]

BW: If altruism is merely a pretext for satisfying individual needs, how does that relegate "responsibility" to the individual? They aren't responsible for any of their acts (as you characterize it), so their acquisition of "social control" is entirely dictated by their proximity to whatever happens to be the "social equilibrium" of political power. An individual can't have any "control" over others, since the actions of all those others are predetermined by their social position: both the controlled and the controller are just selfish cogs in the collective machine, governed entirely by the pursuit of equilibrium.

[GB: Remember that altruism and selfishness are in the eyes of the beholder. They do not exist. They are motions. Again, nowhere did I ever claim that “altruism is merely a pretext for satisfying individual needs.” That would be a pretty nihilistic view, which I definitely do not have. Altruism and selfishness are not “things” that can be passed from generation to generation.]  

BW: You seem to be asserting that all animals (particularly humans) are naturally selfish, but pretend to be altruistic in order to acquire friends, who will fight other groups in the mindless pursuit of a collective equilibrium of power. That's a pretty bleak view of humanity, but probably consistent with the Marxist "class struggle".

[GB: Again, I do not agree with any of these assertions. Perhaps a little review of univironmental analysis would help return the discussion to the scientific plane. Remember that the universal mechanism of evolution is univironmental determinism, the observation that what happens to a portion of the universe is determined by the infinite matter in motion within and without. That includes individuals and groups, each of which is an xyz portion of the universe (e.g., microcosms). In politics, you are free to use subjective terms such as good, bad, selfish, and altruistic, but that ain’t science.

Remember also that there is only one fundamental question that applies to all political systems: “Should we do it together or apart?” The answer to that question, like the answer to ethical questions, changes through time. Each political or ethical decision amounts to an experiment. As scientists, we can attempt to provide the data for both, but we cannot make such decisions in our capacity as scientists. Those decisions are for each individual and each group to make in their capacities as citizens.]   

TSW:  "As reciprocal interactions between the individual and society, the production and sponsorship of altruistic acts are the obligations of both."

BW: After assuming that altruism is the primary characteristic of ethics (morality), and then asserting that every altruistic act is a mere pretext, you now assert that it is an obligation. Strange. Of course, in your view (as presented above), all acts are determined. Therefore, there can be no such thing as an "obligation", which is a requirement imposed on others. Human actions dictated by others are irrelevant if every act is determined.

[GB: Sorry, but I defined ethics as a road map for navigating the social landscape. Ethical behavior can be viewed as either altruistic or selfish, with neither of those judgmental terms being primary characteristics useful for scientific analysis. Again, altruism as pretext is your idea, not mine. I do agree with you that the quoted sentence needs revision. Although the statement may be true in a political sense, it is not true in a scientific sense. In the next edition, I will change “obligations” to “properties.” I also will change “altruistic acts” to “what are viewed as altruistic acts,” since altruism is a subjective term and not a scientific one.

Sorry, but "obligations" or requirements imposed on others are a necessary part of nature. It makes no difference whether human actions are dictated by others or thought to occur as a result of some magical “free will.” All human actions, like the motions of all microcosms, are univironmental, being determined by the infinite matter in motion within and without. It is definitely not true that “human actions dictated by others are irrelevant.” Try going through a red light sometime.]

TSW:  "Society can sponsor those actions it considers altruistic by providing the kind of macrocosm in which altruism is likely to occur."

BW: If EVERY individual is merely faking altruism (as you suggest), then why would society - or political leaders - be any less devious? In some respects, politicians are even more hypocritical, since they *never* sacrifice their own money for altruistic motives: they simply take it from one group and give it to another. IF altruism makes any sense at all, why shouldn't the poor "fake" altruism by giving their money to the rich?

[GB: Whew! That was quite a load. Feel better now? BTW: I checked the entire book and found no place where I suggested that altruism was always “faked.” Indeed, upon many occasions I included the words “viewed as” to make it clear that the classification of behavior as either “selfish” or “altruistic” was subjective, not objective. It is true that as we grow out of our infantile solipsism, we need to develop concern for others. At first, this may seem like a kind of fakiness as we learn the social graces. As the saying goes: “Learn to fake sincerity and you’ll have it made.” Nonetheless, whether actually fake or actually sincere, the social graces need to be learned and applied.]

BW: For that matter, if everything is predetermined, why bother to propose what society can or should "sponsor"? You seem to grant the collective (society) a legitimate ethical motive - and a choice in the matter - that you don't grant to any individual member of that same society. I suppose you could say the "sum is Greater than the Parts", but it's difficult to argue that the "sum is the Opposite of the Parts."

[GB: Wow! Where did you get that from? The subject in that section dealt with behaviors generally not attributed to individuals outside a social context. Furthermore, the behaviors of microcosms, whether they are individuals or groups, can be viewed subjectively as “selfish” or “altruistic.” A working society needs to sponsor behavior that it sees as altruistic and unselfish. For instance, all societies seem to require public employees (e.g., fire, police, and military) whose personal sacrifices are regarded as especially altruistic.]

BW: Just for context, I think the altruistic ethic is incoherent, illogical, and perverse. For the most part, I agree with Ayn Rand (though I disagree with her improper use of the word "selfish"):

[GB: Egads!]

TSW:  "The basic
point of this chapter is that humans are microcosms too: portions of the universe, matter in motion."

BW: Except that *everything* is a "microcosm" - and simultaneously a "macrocosm" - relative to something else that is smaller/inside or bigger/outside. Certainly, there are vastly more internal mental processes (matter in motion) for humans than for any other entities in the universe.

[GB: You are getting close, except that the last sentence probably is not true. Surely there must be some aliens who are smarter than us.]

TSW:  "The mind is the motion of matter within the brain. Sensory motion from the macrocosm is neomechanically transferred to the brain where it alters the brain’s physicochemical properties and is thereby stored as knowledge."

BW: Generally true, but this ignores the *kind* of processes that occur in every brain. Human brain processes are obviously quite distinct from those of other animals, or vertebrates, or simians. What you assert here may be true for all of them, but it doesn't enlighten us on the unique *human* qualities of mind.

[GB: Sorry, but, according to the Ninth Assumption of Science, relativism (All things have characteristics that make them similar to all other things as well as characteristics that make them dissimilar to all other things), mental processes are similar throughout the universe. While each microcosm in the universe is unique, that uniqueness is not absolute, as you imply. Each microcosm is the result of the univironmental interactions that have occurred along its evolutionary path. The major differences between the brains of various species is a matter of size and complexity. Your emphasis on dissimilarities is somewhat valid, but it is not evidence for the traditional “soul” that the priests claim or the “free will” that you claim to have.]

TSW:  "... altruistic acts [are] ... univironmental interaction in which the motions of the microcosm appear to benefit the macrocosm."

BW: Your jargon is getting in the way of what you're trying to say. Is it that individuals (microcosms) "appear to benefit" the collective (macrocosm)? Are you saying that's just an illusion, or is it an intentional deception, as you seemed to advocate earlier? Why is self-sacrifice *by everyone* a benefit to everyone in composite? Won't "gives" and "takes" equal out in the end, with a zero-sum game the only result?

[GB: My cautious use of the words "appear to benefit" is in tune with my earlier claim that altruism and selfishness are not proper scientific terms. Like the verboten words “good” and “bad,” those have subjective implications not helpful for objective analysis of what are simply acts. Maybe this example will help: The microcosm of the cells that make up the skin protect the macrocosm of the muscles from damage, sometimes being destroyed in the process. It would be silly to claim that such a univironmental relationship involves illusion, sacrifice, or your jaded “intentional deception.” Above all, when taking our analysis to a higher level involving human interactions, we must be careful to not let our politics get in the way.]

BW: I'm going to postpone the next chapter to offer my view of free will, determinism, and ethics. Then, I'll resume discussion of your chapter on The Social Microcosm, which offers little more than flippant dismissals of "free will" and a superficial analysis of social interaction.
Next: The Social Microcosm

cotsw 056

1 comment:

Westmiller said...

GB: "...As scientists, we can attempt to provide the data for both, but we cannot make such decisions in our capacity as scientists. Those decisions are for each individual and each group to make in their capacities as citizens."

If there is data (not a lot) and there is logic (however muddled), valid scientific conclusions can be drawn (even if they're probabilistic) about "what works" in social relationships. For example, racism doesn't work to the benefit of either the victim or the perpetrator. Science can point that out. Eugenics doesn't work as science, but the belief that it did led to World War II.

GB: "... altruism is a subjective term and not a scientific one."

It's only subjective if it's defined as an emotional commitment, without evidence or logic.

If altruism is defined as acting purely for the benefit of others, rather than self, it can be scientifically demonstrated by evidence and logic to be a "guideline" for social destruction, not a benefit. Likewise, if selfishness is defined as acting purely for the benefit of self, without regard for others, the scientific result must be the destruction of civil society, which cannot be construed as a "good" in any legitimate system of ethics.

Granted, the "state of the art" in social sciences is meager, but we have the entire history of mankind as evidence and that data can be analyzed to determine what worked and what didn't work. If that doesn't produce a scientifically valid "guideline to social conduct", I don't know what can.

GB: "... Your emphasis on dissimilarities is somewhat valid, but it is not evidence for the traditional “soul” that the priests claim or the “free will” that you claim to have."

There is no correlation whatever between the mystically endowed "soul" and my concept of a human will acting independent of "nature or nurture" influences. Sapiens are different than sentients, with a capacity for making scientifically valid determinations about valid and beneficial ethical principles.