Monday, April 11, 2011

Is-Ought dilemma & morality

The Is-Ought problem is a fairly famous philosophical dilemma explored famously by Hume, Searle, Huxley, and many others. It is also sometimes used as an argument against atheism with the excuse that you can't get an "ought" from an "is" and therefore atheism is without any foundational moral basis (a Non Sequitur). Nevermind that the dilemma is NOT resolved, it is a still an open question as to exactly how Humans form Oughts - but theists are nothing if not famous for declaring victory at any gap in the scientific knowledge base.

Recently, Sam Harris has argued that a good foundational basis for secular morality is well-being, with the axiomatic presumption that the world with maximal suffering for all conscious beings is NOT the most desirable state to all of said conscious beings. In what amounts to the social sciences, this is about as self-evident a statement as you can get. I can tell you, with some confidence, that *I* do not wish for maximal suffering for all conscious beings, Q.E.D.

But, in the recent Sam Harris-William Craig debate (Does Good Come From God?), Craig asserted that axioms are equal to taking something on faith, this seems a rather desperate statement for him to have made but he did. Axioms are NOT taken on faith - they are TESTED and proposed, axioms can and have been rejected. This is true in logic, it is true in mathematics, and it is true in every field of science. The primary axioms in those fields are universally accepted (and where they are not, additional axioms/presumptions would be stated up front) AND they have been extensively tested for contradictions. They are not, in any way, shape, or form, equivalent to accepting that a god exists, merely on faith.

Take a simple example from mathematics, the identity axiom states that "a = a" - you can try other axioms but they immediately run into absurd and contradictory conclusions that clearly conflict with reality. The only accepted axioms are those which are either accepted as self-evident (some are tautological or true by definition), demonstrated to be absolutely necessary, or are only conditionally accepted (if this, then that).

In the case of the physical sciences (including logic and mathematics to the extent they are used to draw conclusions about reality) we also test the axioms against reality. If an axiom can be shown to yield conclusions that conflict with reality then it MUST be rejected (in that context). This is another vital step that is utterly missing from the god-proposition.

Let's apply this same standard in the context of the bible. If one takes the bible literally it asserts that the prayers of the faithful would be answered, that they could literally move a mountain with only the tiniest grain of faith. And yet, even the most faithful are unable to effect change in our world by prayer. It has been tested and demonstrated that prayer is not effective. Therefore, the god proposed by the bible has therefore, by any scientific measure, been demonstrated to be a false proposition. But Christian's refuse to reject their hypothesis based on this evidence - it is this presuppositional bias that is the difference between religion and science. Science is prepared to reject ANY conclusion, ANY hypothesis, ANY axiom, ANYTHING that can be shown to be unreasonable based on the evidence alone (even if, in reality, biases and human nature creep into the process in individual cases - on the balance, science has been the most objective route to truth ever known to have been devised - and as we find problems with the system they are corrected, which is to say, the sciences have improved over the ages).

In fact, Christopher Hitchens has argued that religion is our first attempt at philosophy and science. It is just unfortunate that so many have clung to the extremely flawed version for so long, but apparently, such is human nature.

And finally, presuming the existence of a god does absolutely nothing towards establishing the objective existence of some moral foundation. God could simply not care what humans do, in such a world humans would be left to make their own choices, evil deeds would be allowed to continue, and I cannot imagine a SINGLE thing in our world that would argue against such a god.

Craig makes two assertions to support his claim, let's see if they are worthy of axiomatic status.

1) that the crucified and risen Christ is evidence - and he asserts that the fact of the crucifixion is (all but) beyond reproach by the mass of scholarly support - but SURELY Craig is familiar with Schweitzer and MANY others who reject this claim?

"The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the kingdom of God, who founded the kingdom of heaven upon earth and died to give his work its final consecration never existed."
Albert Schweitzer(1875-1965, Nobel Prize 1952), Ph.D, Christian theologian and Dean of Theological College of Saint Thomas at the University of Strasburg
The Quest of the Historical Jesus: First Complete Edition, trans. W. Montgomery, et al., ed. John Bowden (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), page 478

For Craig, educated as he is in biblical studies, to make such an outrageous claim demonstrates the danger of this type of cognitive bias. Hiding contradictory or conflicting data is not tolerated in science.

Just a quick review of the issues with accepting this assertion: There are no contemporaneous accounts by independent scholars of the crucification or the redirections (or the saints rising from the dead). The gospels are written 30-60 years after the supposed events took place. We have not a single autograph. There is evidence of tampering & redaction (to the point of destruction of documents and murder) and NO amount of textual criticism can PROVE that the copies we have are even close to the ORIGINALS - only that the copies of the copies we have are relatively close to the oldest VERSION that survived the stewardship of the early church with its bias, self-interest, and willingness to destroy and murder in order to preserve itself.

If we listen to the bible, and judge them by their fruits, the church does not fair very well for it's first ~1800 years.

2) that God is, by definition, a god of maximal goodness as it is conceived (by some) to be such. It is patently absurd to expect this to be granted presumption as it is neither self-evidence, nor supportable by rational evidence, nor even widely accepted as true (much less the consensus, as much as Craig wishes it to be so -- but you can't get an IS from a wishful OUGHT Mr Craig).

My take on is-ought: OUGHTS exist in our minds because of the ability of our minds to perceive the IS of others. I'll go against Huxley and others here and argue that our morality exists as a PRODUCT of evolutionary processes. This is NOT the Naturalistic Fallacy because I'm not saying that because things happen in Nature they are moral or good.

Huxley rejected evolutionary-based morality (Evolution and Ethics, 1893) arguing that evolution only produces what is, but doesn't define how we Ought to behave towards one another (see also the Naturalistic Fallacy). I think that this is based on an overly simplistic and limited view of evolution, limited by the knowledge of Huxley's time. Huxley was not aware of Strange Attractors in dynamic equations, he was not aware of genetics as we understand them today (they had only a very basic idea that traits could be inherited), he was not aware of neuroscience, he was not aware of cellular mechanics or development, and he was unaware of the level to which genetics, epigenetics, and experiences form and shape human behavior and thought.

So it is not evolution alone that defines morality, but the fact that it created brains which are capable of taking in information about their surroundings, forming memories of those events, executing processes which effect decisions, modeling the environment with predictive algorithms.

Imagine if you will a normal human, your good friend perhaps. A more self-less, giving, loving person you cannot imagine knowing. That person is in a car crash and tragically suffers extensive brain damage. After their physical recovery they are not all the same person. They might not even recognize you, they might be angry or even dangerous - perhaps they harm someone else in a fit of rage. Surely, their actions are beyond the control of the loving person you once knew and loved? Are they as fully morally culpable as the person you once knew and loved? Surely not, the structural changes in their brain have clearly resulted in changes in moral culpability.

But why should some change in mere physical structure of organic matter magically decouple us from (at least some level of) moral culpability?

The combination of our mental faculties, which I described above, means that a normal human being can form objective conclusions about the needs of others by a process of observation of what IS, combined with a projection of the consequences of actions. If these abilities are lost then that person can no longer make those decisions and, as Craig correctly points out, OUGHT implies CAN.

And THAT is the critical realization of moral understanding: we either CAN or we CANNOT. And every bit of neuroscience points to the fact that our ability to do something is based on Natural processes within our brain. If we did not have literally millions of facts that point in this direction you might be excused for assuming otherwise (say, in the late-1800's). We understand (computers evidence this) how aggregations of physical processes can learn, store memories, and make decisions. We also, interestingly, do not require computers to assume moral culpability. The idea almost seems ridiculous (at present), but why should that be so?

I would argue that computers currently do not have a fully closed-loop system, they cannot make observations and project the consequences of actions and make decisions based on that data. They have not been wired up to do so, once they are they would and should become culpable for their actions even though they are STILL exactly the same lump of computational dynamics they are today -- therefore the difference is something that is emergent from the specific dynamics.

Some dynamics CAN, and some CANNOT. Normal human brains CAN, damaged human brains CANNOT.

If Harris is correct, and maximal suffering would be an undesirable state for conscious beings (and that seems self-evident to me as *I* know that I prefer not to suffer), then actions which we CAN take that will lessen suffering and move us towards well-being would be OUGHTS. Harris argues that those actions would objectively (and measurably) move us towards well-being even if mindless actors were performing them.

The question is, can Natural evolutionary processes (reproduction, modification, and selection) generate entities which can deduce these actions - and I find the arguments in favor of evolution to be overwhelmingly positive. That is, have amoral physical processes yielded a computational system capable of observation, memory, prediction, decision, and action and should such systems objectively converge on the same core principles of action of right & wrong actions.

Even more problematical for the god-premise would be the existence of moral dilemma's and that, to the extent that ethical systems attempt to be logically complete and consistent they will necessarily fail pray to Gödel's incompleteness theorems. Harris touched on these issues in the debate and in his book as well.

But perhaps a better question is, does it even matter if morality is objective or subjective? I don't think that it really does. If it IS subjective then it is so because we are merely made of physical stuff following physical rules and we really HAVE no choice any way. Science is replete with examples of observations that have flown in the face of the common wisdom. You cannot make a logical argument from first principles that Nature MUST contain an objective moral foundation. It either it DOES or it DOES NOT, and if it is knowable then that knowledge can only come from the most careful of observations of Nature itself.

This is just my quick, rambling, take on it - my apologies for what I'm sure will be many typos.

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