Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A wise man once said...

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Don't judge a book by its cover.

A ship is safe in harbour, but that's not what ships are for.

Never leave that till to-morrow which you can do to-day.

I've often wondered what it is about proverbs and wise sayings that makes them so, well, wise. What is it that they posses that somehow makes us pause and take a long hard look at ourselves - and maybe even learn something new? Or remember something forgotten.

This got me to browsing some of the many collections of sayings and proverbs online in the hope that some underlying pattern might be made clear.

Seek and ye shall find...

And there is some strange phenomenon I've noticed. Many, although not all, wise sayings seem to have efficacy because they're so self evident, yet far from obvious.

Let's take:

Don't judge a book by its cover.

We can probably all recall times when we've come to snap judgements about something or someone and subsequently found ourselves to have judged too soon. Hence the resonance of the saying.

Yet it's also effective because it contradicts our natural impulse to make snap judgements. This impulse, in and of itself, is not bad. In fact, it's critically useful. Our minds are far from being rational and deliberative in every day operation - despite introspective egotistical intuitions to the contrary.

When we make a decision, for example, we don't necessarily follow an entirely conscious logical process. Instead, dozens of individual, and interlinked, cognitive mechanisms leap into action, rapidly digesting and processing information and spitting out a decision. This process happens quite transparently to our consciousness. In fact, our consciousness is often only aware of the decision by observing the results in action - yet the consciousness is uncannily gifted at retrospectively attributing its own agency in the decision, when it was really the manifold cognitive processes that did all the legwork.

This cognitive model of behaviour also explains why we tend to fall into what I call 'shortcut traps'. The cognitive mechanisms, including schemata, emotions and the like, are all like shortcuts - taking minimal input to yield a substantiative output without bothering with exhaustive processing or weighing up possibilities or contingencies. Yet they're prone to error, especially when dealing with something even slightly outside the norm.

Like meeting someone in a sharp suit and assuming they're a wealthy professional. Or meeting someone in a disheveled state and assuming they're homeless. Often these momentary assessments are correct. But there's every possibility they're not.

It's my guess that proverbs and wise sayings serve to remind us of the fallibility of our cognitive shortcuts and cause us to pause and reflect on their output from time to time.

That's not to say we should see wise sayings as presenting a skeptical challenge to our thought processes - that we should never judge people by appearance - but only that doing so is a useful shortcut, but one very prone to error.

And perhaps this can shed some light on the nature of wisdom itself.

Perhaps it's a feature of wisdom - as it's conventionally and trivially envisaged - that it's the ability to penetrate and see - or even behave - beyond the cognitive shortcuts and emotions that dominate our thought processes.

Then again, it might be wise to say I might be wrong. After all:

The only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Ultimate rebellion

Can we rebel against our biology? Can we rebel against our very genes?

Let's take mating as one example. Arguably, the desire to mate is a powerful one, and one inevitably hardwired in our genes. The manifestation of this desire could be multiply realised, but the end result is often the same: the production of offspring.

And let's consider the dangers of overpopulation. Even within highly developed countries where birth rates have been dropping, each new child consumes more resources than several individuals in a developing country.

Yet, there is evidence that we can override our genes and change our behaviour, even in ways that are unnatural. Continuing the example of mating, we have contraception.

Contraception has often been cited as a crowning example of how we have overridden nature and overcome genetic compulsion. In fact, Richard Dawkins uses the example of contraception quite a few times in this context, such as in The Selfish Gene as well as in this interview with the evolutionist:

the evolutionist: So when you're saying we need to "rebel" against our selfish genes and thwart their schemes, what kinds of things do you have in mind?

Dawkins: Well, contraception for a start - a very concrete feat of rebellion...

And again in this interview on the BBC:
"There’s absolutely no logical problem with our wilfully contradicting the 'desires of the selfish genes', we do that every time we use a contraceptive."
Yet I think Dawkins has made a fairly basic but common error in using contraception as a case of us rebelling against our genes.

It appears to me as if Dawkins has mistaken proximate cause with ultimate cause.

The ultimate cause of mating may be the production of offspring. But that's not normally front-of-mind to people in the throes of passion. Instead, it's the passion that is front-of-mind.

It's this passion that is the proximate cause of mating; it's the attraction between two individuals, the emotional compulsion to, um, bond, etc.

In the case of contraception, we may have rebelled against the ultimate level, but have fallen head over heels for the proximate level. So we're actually pandering to our genetic compulsions by encouraging frequent, um, coupling.

A true example of rebelling against our genes might be total, life-long abstinence. But contraception is only a minor rebellion.

Contraception is like eating low fat food. We're conscious enough of the (ultimate) consequences of eating high fat food, but we still seek out (proximately) tasty food.

So it seems our genes are not so easy to rebel against after all.

Why is this important? If we're to rebel against aspects of our genes that are considered undesirable in modern society, we may have to do more than treat the ultimate causes. We may have to tackle the proximate head on.

One example might be our tendency to group people into 'us' and 'them' groups. Another might be status envy. Or we could consider the way we respond to some transgressions against us with retribution firmly in our hearts. These may all have a biological component.

It may not be enough to manage the ultimate - the consequences - without considering the proximate - the deontological or motivational level. I don't yet know to what extent this is the case, but we would do well not to muddle the two.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Beyond 'natural'

Have a close look at this:

How does that make you feel? A bit woozy? It does, me.

It's called cognitive dissonance: and age-old trick of confounding one cognitive mechanism - say words and their corresponding expectations - and another - say colour perception.

Now take a look at this:

It's Thomas Beatie, a pregnant man (photo courtesy of The Advocate and NY Post).

How does this make you feel?

If you're like many people, it makes you feel more than a little uneasy. Some were outright disgusted.

William Leith from the UK's Telegraph sums it up nicely:
But on a purely emotional level, the very idea of male pregnancy is difficult to accept... I found the whole concept deeply disturbing.
But why do we find this disturbing, if indeed we do?

Commentators provided different accounts, but many, if not all, amounted to some notion of it being 'unnatural'.

But what about being 'unnatural' makes it feel so wrong? Having an artificial hip is 'unnatural', yet we're not disgusted by that. There are animals that change gender and mate with members of their former sex. Weird, maybe, but arguably very 'natural'.

Would it help to know that Thomas was born a female, but went through gender-reassignment surgery but maintained his female reproductive organs (albeit with a hysterectomy)? For some it does. For others, the gender ambiguity just compounds the feelings that the whole situation is unnatural.

In fact, I had the privilege to edit a powerful article by David Salt when I was editing Cosmos on intersexuality. This suggests that transgenderism and intersexuality are far from being unnatural, but that doesn't change the fact that we've evolved and been conditioned to have very clear stereotypes associated with gender. This will probably never change, but the case of Thomas should give us pause to acknowledge and reflect on our emotional responses, and then decide whether they're appropriate given the unusual circumstances.

Another interesting response comes from Nature, one of the world's leading scientific journals. Here the editors also call for us to re-examine our notion of natural, especially as biomedical technology advances and empowers us to reach well beyond what was 'natural' even a few decades ago.

And this is only the beginning.

We're in for more 'unnatural' situations, emotional reactions and cognitive dissonance. If we're going to be able to cope with the 21st century and beyond, we had better equip ourselves quick smart to be able to respond in a measured way - not dismissing our emotional responses and evolved moral sentiments, but tempering them with reason and science.

The question remains whether our culture and social institutions can keep ahead of the curve in the face of increasingly rapid technological development. Still, it should be a wild - if occasionally dissonant - ride.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Can there be morality without God?

A silly question to ask, perhaps, given the answer is often patently clear depending on who you ask. Ask an atheist and they'll roll their eyes and point to the fact the haven't been raping or pillaging of late (even in spite of possible opportunities to do so). Ask a Christian, for example, and they'll frown and recite that often misquoted fragment of Dostoyevsky, "If God is not, everything is permitted."

I find it remarkable both that evolutionary accounts of morality are becoming increasingly cited by everyone from psychologists to philosophers to religious commentators - but also that evolutionary accounts of morality continue to be misunderstood by many of those critical of it. Namely, those who resort to supernatural explanations of morality.

Here's one, a fine example of the expertly crafted guides intended to equip Christians for heated dinner party conversations (why do secular thinkers not take the time to prepare such guides?).
This page has an interesting analysis of evolutionary accounts of morality from a Christian perspective, and some pointed criticisms of them.

Without getting into my own opinions on the matter, first and foremost I think it's critical that all sides at least get the facts (and theories) straight. So, in that light, I'd like to point out some unfortunate errors in this interpretation of atheistic morality and make some clarifications.

Point 1,1 kicks off the misunderstanding of evolutionary accounts of morality:
Humans, as social animals, have always lived in tribes or communal groups, and in this context, various rules for behavior evolved. Evolution has equipped humans with nervous systems biased in favor of social, rather than antisocial, behaviors. Man learned that cooperation is more beneficial than pure selfishness; cooperation with others naturally improves your life. Social customs (morals) naturally evolved. These customs benefited both the group and the individual. In time, religion developed and adopted many of these common rules. But they are no more than mere human inventions.
This suggests that we evolved social customs that encouraged pro-social behaviour. Furthermore, it states that these rules are entirely human inventions, eventually co-opted by religion. This is absolutely not what the latest evolutionary accounts of morality describe. In fact, one crucial property of judgements that spring forth from our evolved moral sense is that they are in some way universal. There is a stark difference in our psychology between actions or rules that are obligatory, and ones that are merely customary or based on individual preference. And this distinction seems to be apparent to people even at a very young age. What's important about this is that the obligatory rules are perceived to be universal, and the feeling is that they should apply to all people, in all situations, everywhere. Compare the way we think of cheating someone to the way we think of placing the fork on the left and the knife on the right.

All this suggests that our evolved moral sense is far more than a set of social customs. And they are equally far from being purely human inventions. Certainly the content of a rule may be contingent on culture, but the moral sense operates at the level of moral sentiments, such as disgust, outrage at unfairness or shame at breaking a social convention - and these are common across all cultures.

Point 1,2 also drags up that old straw man, Nietzsche, and the concept of 'survival of the fittest'.
Atheistic morality should be consistent with what is found in nature—survival of the fittest. This is the type of morality Nietzsche advocated: strive to fulfill one’s own desires, affirm your animal passions, and impose your strong will over those who are weak. Any goal is acceptable as long as one pursues it with energy, resolution, and power. Christian virtues like compassion, pity, and generosity are unbearably repulsive from this viewpoint.
I'm surprised, and disappointed, that this concept keeps rearing its ugly head. Natural selection is a very nuanced process that goes far beyond shaping organisms to 'fit' their environment. Furthermore, this discounts the power of cooperation and benefits provided by social existence - both of which are crucial to this discussion.

That's not to say that ruthless self-interest isn't the best strategy for some individuals. Certainly, if you're the dominant individual in a social hierarchy, it's likely in your best interests to do whatever you can to maintain that position (and privileged access to mates). Yet there are demonstrable advantages to a more equitable social hierarchy that encourages cooperation in certain circumstances, which may be one of the primary reasons why our moral sense evolved alongside our self-interested sense to temper it and promote pro-social behaviour.

The next paragraph is also somewhat unsophisticated:
Humans are perfectly capable of determining what is good or bad, helpful or hurtful, without consulting a supposed deity. The morality of a situation is determined by considering the rewards and disadvantages of an act. Self-interest drives the process. Whatever increases one’s chances of experiencing pleasure is “good”; whatever decreases such chances is “bad.” Morality is simply a strategy one employs for his own long-term benefit...
This is unfortunately not a very accurate representation of contemporary moral theories. Firstly, most moral theories don't suggest that people rationally weigh up advantages and disadvantages of an particular act to reckon whether it will increase or decrease pleasure. Such a theory would amount to a fairly trivial semi-utilitarian consequentialism - and as far as I know, not many would hold such a theory to be true.

There might be some truth in the sentence that "morality is simply a strategy one employs for his own long-term benefit", yet this ignores the critical distinction between proximate and ultimate cause. The ultimate cause of morality may be to provide a long term benefit (which is quite different to the above sentences implying that pleasure was the point of morality), although that benefit may be more for an individual's genes than the individual themselves. Yet the proximate cause of moral behaviour could well be sentiments such as a genuine empathy for other individuals.

Following are some more paragraphs that don't warrant direct attention, except for one old chestnut: that atheists believe that morality is inherently relative, not absolute. There are many who hold this view, but research into moral psychology is clearly pointing to that fact that while the content of our moral systems may be contingent on culture, the moral sense itself - and its promotion of pro-social behaviour - is universal across all cultures, and arguably hard wired into huamn nature. (I believe it is one of the major challenges for contemporary moral theory to map the terrain of this moral sense and see how it contributes to moral systems in conjunction with culture.)

Now, for the Christian responses:
Like anyone else, atheists know that God exists (Rom 1:19-20), have “the law written in their hearts” (Rom 2:15), and have a conscience, which means that they have a basic capacity to discern right from wrong, good from evil. Atheists “suppress” this knowledge (Rom 1:18), but they are still accountable for it. One’s conscience may be “defiled” (Titus 1:15) or “seared with a hot iron” (1 Tim 4:2), and thus inoperative or insensitive. Those who repeatedly violate their conscience can silence its gentle voice. The only way for an atheist to have a clear conscience is to deny God’s existence.
This first point barely rates a mention because it contributes nothing to a moral debate, except to provide some context for the following statements.
The atheistic assumption that the inner self or society are proper bases for morality is flawed. The inner depths of human nature is deeply sinful and cannot determine the “ought-ness” of any action. The human heart is “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jer 17:9). Even “good” acts may be motivated by selfishness (cf. Isa 64:6). Society is equally unable to provide valid guidelines for morality. Some societies, like the ancient Assyrians, the Romans, or more recently, the Nazi regime in Germany, were barbaric and brutal. Thus, neither the self nor society provide suitable bases for determining morality.
Now we're getting to some interesting - and testable - stuff. This paragraph makes a strong assertion about the nature of the 'human heart', which I'll interpret as being equivalent to what I'd call our 'moral intuitions'. Yet, there's a growing body of research that tells a very different story about our 'heart'. In fact, it appears to be deeply morally ingrained. It can very quickly tell the difference between an arbitrary act and an act of injustice. Or tell a social contract violator from an innocent individual. It is far from perfect in determining these things, but it's far less imperfect than even our capacity to reason these things out.

It does make a good point about society not being able to provide a suitable basis for morality, but that assertion is never made by evolutionary moral theorists. Instead, it's our moral intuitions, interacting with our environment and culture, that shape our moral system, and our society is only a piece of that puzzle.

Then there's this again:
Atheistic morality is liable to change at any time to incorporate changes in taste or mood. There can be no sense of absolute or transcendent morality.
I won't add much here except to remind that contemporary evolutionary moral theory allows - and predicts - that moral systems will change, but that our inherent moral faculty remains largly the same. Think of it as like language. Languages differ from culture to culture, and they change over time. Yet all cultures have a language, they are based upon a fairly restricted set of grammatical rules, and we're born with an innate capacity to learn a language - which one depends on where we grow up. As for a transcendent morality, the research tells us that one fact about moral judgments is that they appear transcendent, whether they are truly universal or not. So perhaps there is no objective transcendent morality, which would apply just as much to Christian morality as secular morality.
Evolution does not provide a satisfactory process for how morality arose in humans. If man is an animal, why does he alone have a sense of right and wrong? How can evolution explain the kind of morality that has no genetic benefit? Why do virtually all human cultures recognize moral standards? Atheists commonly assert that the universe has no purpose, no evil and no good in it. How then can one judge that anything is evil or good? Atheists have no logical basis for morality and offer no means of determining moral choices, other than self-interest. There can be no morality for those who say we live in an amoral universe. Neither atheism nor Darwinism has any explanation for purely disinterested altruism, such as when a stranger risks his life for a fellow stranger.
As I've already mentioned (and hope to go into more detail in the future), there are answers to all these questions. Not all of those answers are complete nor are they without controversy, but there are cogent, reasoned answers increasingly backed up by evidence. For example, as I've stated above, the reason "all human cultures recognise moral standards" is because we have an evolved innate moral faculty. As for a logical basis for morality, this is a tough question, and one that I think applies to all moral systems (assuming you discount the voracity of the supernatural to explain the problem away). 'Good' and 'evil' may need to be redefined in a more comprehensive and nuanced way compared to the way we've used them traditionally. For example, ultimate good (passing genes on to the next generation) may need to be distinguished from proximate good (helping or cooperating with another individual). But to suggest that Darwinism provides for an amoral universe is an overly simplistic account.
Atheists really should be determinists. If the universe functions purely according to natural laws, then everything is governed by those laws, and whatever happens must happen. Each person is merely a collection of physical materials running a program, like a living computer. If that is true, then words like ought have no meaning. Materialism provides no means of deciding between one choice and another and no way of determining the morality of any situation. Our whole vocabulary of praise and blame, admiration and contempt, approval or disapproval can have no meaning if the atheists are right.
The issue of determinism is a side issue here. Whether determinism is true or not, and whether it is incompatible with free will, is irrelevant in a discussion of morality. Even if determinism is true, we still wish to behave well and shape the behaviour of other individuals (through punishment etc), and that forms the basis of a moral system.

There's lot here, and far more unsaid. There is a burgeoning body of research into our moral psychology, how it could have evolved and how it shapes our moral systems. I'll aim to flag much of it here on this blog, and place it in context of the moral debates that are occurring today.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Hardwired morality

Very interesting discussion between Paul Bloom, a psychologist from Yale, and Joshua Knobe, philosopher from UNC. Particularly in the first section, they talk about the intersection of moral philosophy and psychological research.

What I find interesting about this discussion is that while Knobe makes some interesting observations, in my opinion it's the psychologist Bloom that is shedding more light on the roots of morality - AND he backs it up with actual evidence from experiments.

Why did philosophy not think of working like this before?

This discussion also touches on a lot of the ideas and research that I'm investigating for my own PhD on the evolution of morality.

Two researchers named by Bloom are Jonathan Haidt and Marc Hauser. Haidt has done some fascinating research on psychological universals that relate to morality. One example is his research into disgust, which appears to function across cultures, although the content of what inspires disgust certainly changes across cultures. This may provide us with some insight into what aspects of moral psychology are hardwired and universal (a disgust reaction) and which aspects are variable (the content, such as whether it's eating dogs or cremating your dead).

Hauser has written a book that has been very influential on me called Moral Minds. It expounds a theory that we have a hardwired faculty for morality in a similar way that Chomsky suggested we have a hardwired faculty for language and grammar.

The question then becomes how the faculty enables a moral system to emerge from base moral sentiments, and how culture affects this process? Also - and this is an area I'm very interested in exploring in my own research - is how this can explain immoral behaviour? But we'll leave that for another day.