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The Moral Backlash • Epiphenomenalism Explained Away • Public Meditations • Theory of Evolution Is Not Science • Kant Misrepresented • Being Described • Crossword Puzzle

The Moral Backlash

Dear Editor: I read the articles on moral relativism in Issue 82 with some disbelief as to their seriousness. On the assumption that the writers are serious, I wonder how their views square with what I assume is their actual daily practice of trying to live in a way which involves some observance of ethical principles, and no doubt, of making ethical judgements themselves on the behaviours of others.

Peter Ellway

East Grinstead

Dear Editor: In Issue 82 we had five distinguished professors who want to see the final banishment of objective morality. Okay, so let’s wipe the whiteboard! It’s time to start again! We need to construct new codes of conduct for ourselves. None of your contributors advocated immorality – all seem to expect a continuation of what we now call moral behaviour, even after ‘the abolition of morality’. It is not always clear what can be relied upon to ensure that behaviour does not become anti-social and seriously detrimental to human well-being; but rationality, benign emotional propensity, relativism, and determinism all feature as answers.

Do we really need to sully our clean board with new guidance? I’m not aware of any serious anti-social behaviour problems amongst professors of moral philosophy, and rationality and benign emotion may be a sufficient guide for them. But guidance is also needed for young people growing up in neighbourhoods where the majority are unemployed, and status and respect can be earned by violence and criminality. Or, to take a quite different example, can one say to a believer in a strict moral code sanctioned by their religion, “Forget about morality, you’ll be much happier”? Or what to say to the banker who feels that he is far cleverer (genetically luckier) than the rest of us, and therefore deserves a reward hundreds of times greater than the average wage – even if the consequences of his work are disastrous for others?

Personal morality affects the welfare of society in many ways. For instance, it is interesting to note a strong correlation between the world’s least corrupt states (as reported by Transparency International), and the world’s wealthiest states in terms of GDP per capita (as reported by the International Monetary Fund). Correlation is not causation, nor is it proven which is the horse and which the cart; but this at least consistent with a belief that corruption lowers the standard of living within a society.

So yes, we do need a new morality (it’s difficult to dispense with that word). The good news is that as we have a blank board, we can elect what to write on it. The word ‘elect’ is crucial, as it implies an electorate and mass participation, which would give legitimacy to the new ethic. The bad news lies with the difficulties. These are of two kinds: first, the difficulty of involving an electorate; and se ­c­ond, the problems faced by anyone who attempts to frame moral rules.

How do we elect a new moral code? Not at the ballot box! One may hope that a move to a more rational ethic will instead involve reasoned discussion amongst those who take an interest, followed by the gradual osmosis of new ideas permeating the media. A website which enabled people to select their preferences from a list of values, and to comment generally, would have an important function. What forum would be more suitable than the Philosophy Now website? [If you want a vote, please start one at forum.philosophynow.org – Ed.]

As to difficulties of the second kind, it seems inevitable that some sort of lightly prescriptive code is required for society to function. It could be argued that much of the codification of ethical demands is already covered by existing law.

Lawyers and legislators are familiar with the difficulty of drafting any provision which does not sometimes have unintended harmful effects. It is often impossible to anticipate all the facts and circumstances that will fall within the scope of a particular rule. For that reason, when it comes to moral principles, we need to move away from commandments, and opt instead for commendments! A decimal system of commendments (ie, ‘moral credits’) might be a way forward. Any workable new ethical system is likely to include the following features:

1. The advancement of human welfare as its primary purpose.

2. Some general guiding principles. There are insights from the past that could provide good guidance in most cases where a choice of action has to be made. These principles include the concept of a social contract (with Rawls’ veil of ignorance) as a metaphor for reciprocity and enlightened self-interest; universalizability (what if everyone were to do it?); and the Golden Rule – ‘Do as you would be done by’.

3. Fact relativism. Any moral choice will depend upon the facts of the case. This is quite distinct from broader relativism. It is difficult to see how even cultural relativism – ‘that does not apply to people of my way of thinking’ – can be accommodated within an ethical constituency.

4. Detailed commendments.

These principles are up for election!

Jim Tazewell

Minehead, Somerset

Dear Editor: After reading the articles concerning the ‘death of morality’, I felt that the purpose of morality was sadly neglected in them. The main assumption underpinning morality was not even mentioned. Morality assumes free will, the ability to choose between various actions. If we live in a deterministic world where free will is an illusion, morality becomes fictional.

The next point the articles missed is that morality can be split into two stages:

1) Determine the framework. The moral framework determines the rules on which moral systems are based. This framework can be either religious or secular (such as Utilitarianism). Arguments against God or an afterlife fail to undermine moral systems with secular frameworks, including those based on the needs of society.

2) Implement the rules. In one sense all morality is relativistic, as what determines whether an actions is moral or immoral is how it relates to the moral framework. However, this is least apparent in absolutist frameworks such as Mosaic Law or Kant’s Categorical Imperative, where the rules are learnt so the amount of thought required when faced with a choice of action is relatively small when compared to many secular frameworks based on needs of society, community or family, where the amount of thought required is considerable, such as with Bentham’s Hedonic Calculus, where a full analysis of consequences is required.

In many ways a good moral framework complements a sound legal system in forming responsible behaviour. Frameworks of morality often reflect the culture of the society they sustain. Linking morality to the needs of society does lead to a moral relativism, but does not imply that anything goes. For example, in underpopulated societies, it would be moral to have a large family, but in overpopulated societies it would be moral to have a small family. Here morality reflects the needs of society, and these needs change as society changes.

Secular frameworks are metaphysically sounder than religious ones, as they’re dependent on the evident needs of society rather than on a relationship with an entity whose existence is widely disputed. Evaluating the morality of actions according to the needs of society provides morality with real meaning, rather than it just being a useful fiction.

Russell Berg


Dear Editor: At the end of his stimulating article, ‘Morality is a Culturally Conditioned Response’, Professor Jesse Prinz considers this ‘allegation’ against moral relativism: “Relativism entails that we have no way to criticize Hitler.” He then claims to demolish this allegation by two arguments. The first is that “Hitler’s actions were partially based on false beliefs, rather than values.” Coming from a relativist, this is a difficult argument to swallow. I will agree that it’s a good repost if Prinz can show me one political belief which is indisputably ‘true’: that is, to all peoples at all times, ie, not relativistic. Second, Prinz argues, “the problem with Hitler was not that his values were false, but that they were pernicious.” An on-line dictionary defines ‘pernicious’ as “causing insidious harm or ruin; ruinous; injurious; hurtful” – which, of course, is a different concept than simply ‘false’. However, I am not sure that either of the terms ‘false values’ or ‘pernicious values’ as they are used here mean any more to a relativist than saying, “in this case, Prinz does not agree with these values.” If on the contrary you assume a category of values are bad because they cause ruin or are injurious, then you must condemn the cannibals, Roman blood-sports fans, and Chinese footbinders – all of whom Prinz quotes as examples of how one group’s good can be another group’s evil. Does morality then become a function of efficiency – ie, does this act contribute to the success of my group/family/tribe? As Prinz says, “No group would last very long if it promoted gratuitous attacks on neighbours or discouraged child-rearing. But within these broad constraints, almost anything is possible. Some groups prohibit attacks on the hut next door, but encourage attacks on the village next door.” Yet isn’t that just what Hitler was doing, albeit on a genocidal scale? I am not of course trying to justify Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot or any other murderous dictator; but his example shows why I am uneasy about moral relativists who draw the line somewhere without clearly explaining why – cf ‘All morality is relative, there is no absolute standard of right or wrong, but of course we can all criticise Hitler, who was clearly wrong’. So are some moralities less relative than others?

David Upton


Epiphenomenalism Explained Away

Dear Editor: I would like to make two comments concerning Norman Bacrac’s essay on epiphenomenalism in Issue 81:

1) If there is a one-to-one correspondence between the physical states of the brain and states of consciousness, then there is no reason from a purely logical point of view to say that one state is the cause of the other, rather than vice versa. That is, ‘If and only if A, then B’ implies ‘If and only if B, then A’: the two statements are logically equivalent. So there is no more logical reason to say that the state of my brain causes my thinking than to say that my thinking causes the state of my brain. The only reasonable conclusion is to say that A and B are co-determinative, that they mutually imply each other. We can just as rationally say that what happens on top determines what happens below as to say it the other way around.

2) Bacrac says, “Just as a computer’s chess program necessarily obeys the laws of physics as it derives lawful chess moves, so brains, driven by physics, can exhibit logical reasoning, if educated correctly.” But his second axiom is that “every brain state evolves solely in accordance with physical law.” So in what context could we say that a brain has been educated improperly? If we take the laws of nature to be inviolable and fully determinative, then we must live in a perfectly lawful natural world. There can be no errors or mistakes in a natural process. We’ll never catch a hydrogen atom misbehaving.

The difficulty with naturalistic determinism is that it has no explanation for normative or criteriological thinking. Natural scientists use such thinking to create and evaluate their own theories; but these ideas have no place within the theories themselves. This is the point R.G. Collingwood was making in his discussion of psychology as a ‘science of thought’ in his Essay on Metaphysics (1940). Collingwood categorises logic and ethics as normative sciences because they study the methods we use to distinguish correct thinking and behavior from incorrect. A naturalistic way of thinking about thinking cannot do this, as a natural process is not inherently true or false, right or wrong, good or bad. A natural process simply happens, or it does not happen. A natural process cannot be appropriately described as bogus.

So in naturalistic determinism, it is not just the idea of free choice that becomes illusory, but any kind of value judgment whatsoever. The chess program does not decide whether a particular move is a lawful chess move. Likewise, a hand calculator has no idea whether it is doing calculations correctly or not. It is simply a machine. The chess program creates an illusion that it knows how to play chess in the same way that a calculator creates an illusion that it understands arithmetic: a human mind places this interpretation upon the mechanical result of the program. Professor Collingwood argued that there was a great deal of confusion on this question because the idea of metaphysics had fallen into disrepute in segments of society; and it had fallen into disrepute because many philosophers had failed to recognize that metaphysics was the study of the presuppositions of science.

If an advanced neuroscience demonstrated that a particular physical process in the brain may be interpreted as an act of reflection on its own past activity, and an act of self-criticism and self-judgment as to whether that activity was properly done and had achieved its intended result, then this would clearly represent a dramatic paradigm shift from our present thinking about theoretical physics and natural science. I suppose the next task for such a highly-developed neuroscience would be to read the mind of the universe itself, if it has a mind. But perhaps our own modest organic brains are the only material expressions of mind which the physical universe has so far originated. If that is the case, then we really ought to take good care of ourselves.

The debate about free will versus determinism might be partly clarified in the following way. If you ask a pocket calculator to give you the sum of two plus two, it will only give you one answer, and can only give you one answer. If you ask me to give you the sum of two plus two, I can choose whether to give you the correct answer or an incorrect one. I understand basic arithmetic, so I know what the correct answer is; but I am not programmed to give you the correct answer. I can choose to give an irrational answer, perhaps out of obstinacy or to assert my independence. I have the option of breaking the rules if I want to. In this sense, rationality is not compulsory to the human will. And a free decision is a decision not made under compulsion. So I also think that a truly human version of artificial intelligence would have to have the capacity to lie, for its own reasons. Would we really want to create an artificial intelligence like that?

D.N. Dimmitt

Lawrence, Texas

Dear Editor: In ‘Epiphenomenalism Explained’ (Issue 81), Norman Bacrac bases his argument on two axioms. My problem is that Axiom 2, ‘Every brain state evolves solely in accordance with physical law’ is by definition a negation of conscious will. Mr Bacrac points out that “since the time of Galileo, no physics textbook has needed to include consciousness in the equations it expounds.” Of course the reason for this is that since Galileo, physics has confined itself to finding those things which exist independently of mind. Therefore the physical law referred to in Axiom 2 has already eliminated consciousness from its worldview. (See ‘Tallis in Wonderland’ in the same issue for an excellent discussion of this topic.) When Mr Bacrac then inappropriately applies these physical laws to discover the origins of consciousness, he must by definition find no hint of a linkage. He consequently recovers consciousness as some floating epiphenomenon with no function whatsoever.

Physical laws do indeed add great value to our understanding of brain mechanisms, but by definition, they can add no value to our understanding of consciousness per se. Therefore, all Mr Bacrac’s subsequent arguments about consciousness are baseless.

Dr Steve Brewer


Public Meditations

Dear Editor: The most recent issue available to me being No.75, I’m writing about an old article by John Lachs on Public Intellectuals. It was encouraging to read about philosophical developments in various ethical areas, and his understanding that contemporary philosophy needs to apply itself in a more ‘real world’ fashion, even if he was pessimistic about the likelihood of this occurring.

My exposure to, and hence understanding of the intricacies of Western philosophical thought is recent and of no great depth. Whatever philosophical insights I have gained are of Buddhist origin, from over twenty years as a Vipassana Meditator. Over the course of this time I’ve spent a total of about fifteen months in solitary, silent observation of the mind/matter phenomenon. So I have some practical experience of what is involved with Buddhist philosophical practice and its benefits. From what I’ve read of Western philosophy, much of it is very astute at describing aspects of the human condition. As such its main function appears to be that of making ‘State of the Nation’ addresses, rather than any sort of policy statement. Some of its more recent directions seem mostly concerned with converting philosophy into a science to gain credibility in the modern rational mind. Reducing life experience, along with decision-making, to mathematical formulae and concepts with unpronounceable names mainly provides job security for elite academics. It may possibly supply us with a theory for why society continues to spiral further to existential angst; but how does knowing you are hungry help you get fed? ‘Life is Misery’ is of course the first line of the Middle Path, and a common theme of much Western philosophy as well. However, although Western philosophy often touches on the attributes and benefits of detachment, tolerance, happiness and compassion (all qualities which meditation enhances), it offers no suggestions on how a person might aspire to develop them. This is equivalent to giving a starving child a can of food, telling them what’s in it, but not providing a can opener. Buddha found the can opener and spent his life teaching others to use it. This is the true spirit of philosophy. Academic philosophers should concern themselves far more with engaging in the public arena. It is not a case of promoting a specific platform or even providing defined answers. What is needed is the questioning and challenging of a social system suffering from tunnel vision. People need to be exposed to different options, and this can only be done through the education system.

Lindsay Jamieson

New Zealand

Theory of Evolution Is Not Science

Dear Editor: In Issue 81 Professor Pigliucci writes a dismissive review of What Darwin Got Wrong by Professors Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini. I believe he is wrong about that and that the authors of the book are making a serious objection, concerning causality, that is fatal to evolution by natural selection being considered a scientific theory.

Let me summarize what belief in evolution by natural selection commits us to. First we have to conceive of viable organisms living in a generally supportive environments and capable of reproduction. Second, we must imagine environmental challenges presented, which must be overcome to allow survival at least up to reproduction. Third, there must be inter- or intra-specific competition which will favour some individuals over others. The net result will be survival of the fittest and inheritance of change. In this way Darwin has presented a case for relationships between a great diversity of organisms, along with a naturalistic (mechanistic) explanation of how this had been achieved.

There is nothing wrong with this as a supposition, but I contend that it is not the basis of a scientific theory, because the entities involved are too fuzzy. The traits themselves are nominal; an individual can be a fertilised egg, or both a larva and imago. There is no way of disentangling what is selected for and what is ignored. One can make intelligent guesses; but no scientist can intervene in evolution to arrange fair testing. Since the essential strength of science depends on concept formation and reformation based on repeatable experiment, evolution by natural selection cannot be scientifically validated – the scale is global and the constraints indeterminable. (Experiments with melanic moths and their larvae, though of ecological interest, do not contribute to the evolutionary debate.)

However, there are excellent scientific frameworks employing the idea-entities referred to in Darwin’s hypothesis: they include population dynamics, genetics and (most inclusively) ecology. I would go further, and say that the obvious science that evidently comes directly from Darwin’s work is indeed ecology.

It is worth remembering here Darwin’s own treatises on earthworms and barnacles. His modesty and caution – expressed throughout his writing – is part of his legacy. Scientists, and philosophers of scientific method, owe it to him to be similarly cautious.

What can be said from an historical standpoint is that the observations of Darwin and Wallace completely overwhelmed the church’s singular explanation of the diversity of nature. I venture to suggest that Darwin’s ‘theory’ has however itself become a form of spurious creed, validating biological studies. When I was a Science Subject Officer with Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations I had occasion to draft a statement which read “Creationism and ‘intelligent design’ are not regarded by OCR as scientific theories. They are beliefs that do not lie within scientific understanding.” The surprising thing is that a caveat is required too for essential Darwinism.

Professor Pigliucci’s final claims, that What Darwin Got Wrong will “set back the relationship between philosophy and science” seem completely out of place. There is continuous international debate on these matters, with constant focus on the distinction to be made between what is ontological and what epistemological.

John Greenbank

Mosterton, Dorset

Kant Misrepresented

Dear Editor: In Issue 81, Justin Holme claims that “Kant might well have said that physics is the exploration and understanding of the noumenal world – of reality as it actually is.” He adds that “the strangeness of quantum theory would have perfectly fitted Kant’s intuitions that the mind-independent world was radically different from the world of appearances we’re directly aware of.”

While Holme presents interesting ideas about the simulated self, I must object to this misrepresentation of Kant. Although modern physics is strange, Kant would never say that it gives us access to the noumenal world, because modern physics is dependent on observations and mathematics, both of which are dependent upon inescapably human ways of experiencing and constituting the world, and therefore aspects of what Kant calls the phenomenal world. Even the strangest observations are still observations that take place in space and time. Math, even when it leads to paradoxical conclusions, is still grounded in human ways of thinking. Thus for Kant modern physics cannot give us access to the ultimate truth, the noumenal world beyond all human thought: it is merely showing the foundations of the human world to be more complex than even Kant imagined.

Paul Stearns, Philosophy Instructor, Blinn College, Texas

Being Described

Dear Editor: While I am not convinced one way or the other on the matter, I don’t think it should simply be taken for granted that science cannot successfully describe the entire human experience (‘Being Human’, PN 80). To say that we can’t scientifically investigate what Aristotle might call the ‘material cause’ of subjective experience, simply because it’s subjective experience, seems to set up an arbitrary ontological gap between experience and neuronal firings. But is this gap really justified? As the philosopher of mind Paul Churchland has argued (in ‘The Rediscovery of Light’), we have no reason to suppose that there is a difference between (say) neuronal states and experience. They’re the same thing which we come to know about in two different ways – experientially, and through scientific investigation. This is not unusual, he notes – we can come to know, for example, whether our bladder is full either through some form of external investigation, or through introspection. The trouble is in viewing the objective and subjective as mutually exclusive categories.

The point here is that if we can indeed understand experience – our emotions and senses – with a sophisticated neuroscience, than science could thus feasibly describe to us the nature of that experience. Add in behavioral, social, environmental sciences, and voila! You’ve got an entirely scientific understanding of human life. However, if Grant Bartley is saying that no amount of scientific knowledge will tell us what it’s like to have a subjective experience (as opposed to what it is to have one), I would paraphrase Patricia Churchland (‘What Should we Expect from a Theory of Consciousness?’) in response: Of course it won’t. No amount of propositional knowledge about a thing will be sufficient to communicate the experience of that thing. But if this is the case, not only will science be insufficient to describe what it’s like to have a experience, all descriptions will fail!

Kyle York


Crossword Puzzle

Dear Editor: I am new to Philosophy Now – and indeed to philosophy per se – and I am intrigued as to why the solutions to the Crossword always precede the actual puzzles. Is this indicative of philosophy as a whole, viz that we already have the answers before us – and now we’re just searching for some time-consuming questions to match them?

John Blades


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