Sunday, January 26, 2020

The Two Kinds of Fundamentalists

      You can't hide from God. That's what the Bible says. God sees everything and knows everything. We humans lack that perspective. It isn't possible for anyone of us to see everything and know everything. But that doesn't stop us from feeling certain that what we know is true. Indeed, it's probable that if we didn't feel that way we would never commit ourselves to anything.

     In order to engage in an argument I have to respect my opponent. I have to be willing to listen to their side in order to answer or question their claims. But by participating in an argument I am taking the risk that I could be shown to be wrong. It's only by risking being wrong that we can be open to discovering the truth. Unless each party to an argument is willing to be convinced by the other it's just people talking past each other or one person attempting to bully  the other.

     Recent history is full of examples of people who believed that they, like God, couldn't possibly be wrong. When these people gained power they always destroy open society. Communism and fascism were political systems that imposed their perspective on everyone by force. The communists believed that they had a monopoly on truth and so they forbade political and moral dissent. They knew they were right and they refused to risk being wrong. Every professional and “elected” representative had to be a member of the communist party. The representatives didn't debate the proposals of the communist leaders, they simply rubber stamped them. The legal system always ruled in favour of the communist state because it was always right.

 People who now take the “God's eye” perspective are called Fundamentalists. And like the communists and fascists, they try to stack the deck in their favour whenever they gain power. I agree with George Soros that there are two kinds of modern Fundamentalists. Religious Fundamentalists and Market Fundamentalists. Most people believe that they themselves are right, but what distinguishes Fundamentalists is their refusal to risk being wrong in a fair argument.

     For instance, there is no evidence that would convince a Christian Fundamentalist of the truth of Darwin's Theory of Evolution. Fundamentalists pretend to engage in argument with evolutionary biologists but behind the scenes they try to stack the deck by taking over school boards, by getting state governments to ban the teaching of evolution  and by intimidating publishers from including the subject of evolution in high school biology textbooks.

     Market Fundamentalists believe that free markets are always more beneficial than government regulated markets. There is no evidence that would ever convince them that they are wrong - not the rising income gap between the rich and poor, not the demise of the middle class, not the “dirty thirties”, not the recent sub-prime mortgage meltdown, and especially not the spectre of global warming.  

Market Fundamentalists have managed to stack the deck by perverting the legal and political system.  In fact, a  good portion of U.S. Republicans still believe that global warming is a hoax. The U.S. Supreme Court has, in “Citizens United”, allowed Corporate power to stack the deck in all future elections.  These two kinds of fundamentalism are what is fuelling and maintaining Trump’s unwavering support in the face of overwhelming evidence of his malfeasance. 

See a pattern here? Fundamentalists and extremists can never allow themselves  be wrong.  They are always the most motivated to seize power because they want to prevent the facts, the evidence, and the people from having their say.  It’s not wrong to believe in God or in Capitalism, but it is wrong to refuse to hear evidence or prevent those you disagree with from having a say.  We can let God be perfect, but humans remain fallible no matter how certain they are that they have the truth.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Wrestling With The Truth

Why do popular philosophical theories of truth deliberately deflate truth’s value? They argue that there is no difference in saying,  ” It is true that Trump colluded with the Russians."   and,  "Trump colluded with the Russians."  They argue that the concept "truth"  seems to be redundant, because it isn't saying  more than what the statement says without it.    The deflationists want us to believe that there is nothing much to "truth",  that it doesn't add anything to our assertions unless we are generalizing about multiple statements, as in "What Mueller said was true."

 If truth is nothing more than a logical connective, why do people everywhere feel so passionate about it?  Why is it so important that we get to hear what’s really in the Mueller report? Why do we want to know what really happened during the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign?   Doesn’t knowing what really happened, or who a person really is, matter critically to what we need to do next, going forward?

 Why is it important to know whether humans are causing global warming?  Does it matter that some people deny this?  Does it matter that many of the people who deny this are closely connected to the fossil fuel industry?  Truth matters to our very existence.

  It is no coincidence that when people don’t care about the truth, we very quickly end up with a serious lack of trust in each other and in our social and political institutions. We want to avoid a tipping point, where if trust is too much absent, we all become caught in a downward spiral of fear and paranoia.   This points straight to the problem of conspiracy theories and to a dangerous tendency for any system of inquiry to exist inside a bubble,  where it can be insulated from competing forms of inquiry, even insulated from contradictory facts.

 A 9/11  “truther”  can lay out all the conflicting and messy evidence of that disaster, and claim it justifies 9/11 being an “inside job”.  Try and convince her otherwise. The stronger your counter-argument,  the more she will dig in her heels.  As Travis View, a researcher and podcaster on the QAnon conspiracy said, “..failed predictions and misplaced expectations haven’t damaged the size or enthusiasm of the QAnon community....  Some QAnon followers even claim that failed predictions are irrelevant, because dates that pass without incident serve the purpose of tricking the evil “cabal” they imagine they’re fighting.”,   “that belief system eventually becomes an absurdly byzantine, Occam’s-razor-defying mess that can barely be understood by its own supporters. The deeper they dig into disconfirmed beliefs, the harder, and more painful it is to get out.”  “The Mueller Report is In, Get Ready for the Conspiracy Theories,” Washington Post, March 26,2019.

Christopher French, in “Why do some people believe in conspiracy theories?”, Scientific American, Mind   26 72,  July 2015, claims, plausibly, that conspiracists are not really sure what the true explanation for a surprising event is.  What they are sure about is that the “official story” is a cover-up.  In fact, he indicates, people who are strongly inclined toward conspiracy theories are also more likely to be believe in contradictory stories. For instance, if they believe that Bin-Laden died years before he was said to have died,  they are also more likely to come to believe that Bin Laden is still alive.

Conspiracy theories are a classic case of Confirmation Bias.  This is our universal human tendency to give more weight to evidence that confirms our beliefs and give less weight, and even ignore evidence which contradicts what we believe.

Now, take the well-known Quine- Duhem thesis in philosophy, which roughly states that sentences by themselves are not true or false, because they are always part of a web of belief. So, any observation that disconfirms a sentence in a theory can always be reinterpreted or neutralized by changing other sentences in the theory to fit the observation.  By jove! Quine and Duhem seem to have inadvertently described the fundamentals of building and maintaining conspiracy theories!  And it also seems to me that what Quine and Duhem were really doing, independently of each other, was developing a new explanation for the metaphor of Induction.

Karl Popper, probably the most influential philosopher of science in the twentieth century, has argued that when “scientific” theories are immune to criticism they are not actually scientific. He was, at the time, in the early part of the twentieth century, concerned with the status of Marxism and Psychoanalysis, and he perceptively argued that the reason these theories were bad theories is that they were constructed to be immune from criticism. If no observation makes any difference to the truth or falsity of a theory, the theory isn’t really about reality, it’s equivalent  to metaphysics, a branch of philosophy whose practitioners are suspected of permanently keeping their heads in the clouds.

  Popper explicitly rejects induction as a viable inquiring system. He thinks scientific knowledge grows by conjectures and refutations, not by our inductively confirming our theories.  Let’s consider induction as perhaps a misleading metaphor, the equivalent of the  Confirmation Bias that I mentioned earlier. And, if induction  is an inaccurate description of scientific practice, as Popper maintains, this suggests that epistemological theories of truth like coherentism and pragmatism overvalue coherence and undervalue the importance of falsification.  The idea that knowledge grows by induction imagines a world where knowledge grows by adding truths, when in fact, knowledge grows by our continuing to recognize and correct our mistakes.

There is an asymmetry between truths and falsehoods.  Discovering that an expectation has been falsified is  often a clear mark that we have to change direction and revise our expectations.  We should let observations and results which falsify our expectations give us that vital feedback.  This is something that  we will not get from simply accumulating coherent facts.

 Conceiving of truth as the end of inquiry seems obvious, which is what motivates both coherence and pragmatic theories of truth.  After perception, most of what we learn about the world comes from inquiry, does it not?    But isn’t it true that there are forms of inquiry that compete with each other?  Science contra Theology, Behaviorism contra Psychoanalysis, etc.   Are we then, staring into the abyss of Relativism, where what is true for a Marxist Economist is not necessarily true for other kinds of Economists?  Or, does it all reduce down to physics and logic as the Deflationists would have it?

One can try and solve this problem by avoiding the use of the word “truth” and replacing it with “warranted assertability” or “justified knowledge”, which is what the pragmatists Dewey and Rorty end up doing, but this is just kicking the can further down the road.  Rorty is infamous for arguing that we don’t actually need the concept of "truth" at all.  But, against that road, I think we should first agree that “truth”  is an idealization.  Since inquiry is ongoing, and no body of knowledge is settled, we cannot “know” the truth objectively.  But then, if that is the case how can we use truth as an ideal?  In order for any kind of  idealization to work you have to  use it, believe in it, and see it as an ideal.

One can think of inquiring systems as model-building.  Like the first philosophers, we try to use rational explanations to understand reality.  Our  explanations then become a model of the system that we are trying to understand. We first build a model, then we test it over and over again by subjecting it to observation, experiments, and peer criticism.  Over time our models become bigger and more sophisticated.  They can explain and predict more things with more accuracy.  This is the ideal.

I featured, in a longer essay on  truth,  a discussion of  Plato’s parable of the cave.  I did this for a number of reasons, one of which is that it shows that even  Plato, truly a giant in Philosophy, couldn’t really figure out a rational explanation for how we come to know the  truth.   In this “noble lie” of Plato’s,  The Truth flows one way, from the Sun or “the Good” to the escaped prisoner - from more divine to less divine.  It’s hierarchical, and based on authority.  It reflects the idea of the enlightened master passing on his “divine” wisdom to his disciples.  It’s a closed Inquiring system that rejects experiment, observation, and peer criticism.  It is more like a cult, or like conspiracy theories;  observations that contradict the theory are “shadows” and false images;  observations that support the theory are “clear and distinct ideas”.

Mythical stories can be aesthetically beautiful, but, like Plato’s “noble lie”, they exist to lull people into ignorance and superstition. They are like drugs that can make you temporarily happy by helping you withdraw from the rest of the world, giving you the illusion that you are entirely self-contained.

Unfortunately Plato was so successful that it is almost impossible to think about normative concepts such as “truth” and “good” without imagining a “higher power”  from which they are derived.  In other essays, I've argued  that  truth is an important means of regulating human conduct that emerged from human collective agreement and not at all from any putative divine source.  This is a natural explanation but not a reductive explanation.  It does not explain truth according to physical forces or particles.   I believe that the question concerning the origins of normativity is the basic question concerning human nature.  Answer this question with a natural explanation, and you have the beginnings of a science of human nature.

 However, the closer that human knowledge comes to uncovering the nature of what  distinguishes humans from other animals, the more it tugs at our sense of identity.  The more we focus inquiry on human nature, the more potential our findings have to disturb us.  so we might not like what we hear, and since it is about us, we are highly likely to dispute any evidence that contradicts our most cherished self-images.  In some sense these dangers exist in constructing any natural explanation, but acutely so with questions of human nature.  These are theories and concepts that touch on our strongest feelings about who we are and why we are here.

Take the question of human-caused global warming.  Scientific climatological inquiry has uncovered this connection, but a substantial segment of civilized people who recognize the authority of science still cannot bring themselves to believe in it.  Why is that?  It is because this issue deeply challenges our very identity as human beings.   The idea that we need to be accountable for how our actions impact on our greater environment, and the idea that our lifestyles and economies need to change to incorporate this new understanding is a serious challenge to the way we see ourselves.   And, apparently, it is too much of a challenge  for some.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

The Ten Commitments


                         
When life first formed, a little less than four billion years ago, it only formed because it made The First Commitment - To Multiply. This may remind you of a certain book, but unlike the account in the Bible, this form of life we now call Bacteria.  Bacteria and their allies are single celled organisms that multiply and multiply and multiply by Splitting into identical copies of themselves.   


One and a half billion years ago is our next milestone, when plants and animals become separate creatures and both abandon splitting in favour of  The Second Commitment - Sexual Reproduction.  Lets call this the Sexual Reproductive System,later to become - “the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees.”  


 As for us animals, unlike most plants,  we committed to The Third Commitment: to eating Food and this leads to both the Digestive System and the Predator/Prey System.
Food is important to this story and we will visit it again when we get to cooking.  But, for now, let’s note that ever since it came into being, the Predator/Prey System is one of the main drivers of evolutionary change.  


Nothing much happens for one and a quarter billion years, (only a couple of mass extinction events, and the arrival of dinosaurs...) and then 250 million years ago smallish creatures that we call the first Mammals arrive.  The mothers of these furry little critters stop laying eggs and instead give birth live.  These mothers give birth to The Fourth Commitment: to the Care, Protection, and feeding of their infants.  Baby mammals are warm and cuddly and they cry when they are in distress.  Baby snakes and lizards are not so cuddly and they are silent, because nobody is going to protect them once they’re out of the Egg.  


The Maternal Caring System  is a very important player in this story as I hope to make apparent to you. Mammal mothers have mammary glands that produce milk.  The hormones that are involved in the release of milk - Prolactin and Oxytocin are triggered by close physical contact between mother and baby.  These hormones contribute to the sense of pleasure and attachment between babe and mom.  


The close contact, the period of helpless infancy, the Attachment Bond between mother and child - these are all important, because they will help facilitate development outside the womb, making possible larger brains, greater learning capacity, and more behavioural flexibility than would ever be possible by a creature that comes out of an egg.  


The Fifth Committment that mammals, as well as some other kinds of animals committed to - Living in a Group.  Growing up and living in a group helps protect individuals from predators, and, just like having a mother, it makes longer infancy and more social learning possible.


65 million years ago a group of mammals called Primates made the Sixth Commitment - Living in Trees.  Why live in trees?  To get away from predators and to facilitate access to fruits and other good things.  By living in trees, primates, such as monkeys, evolved better hand-eye coordination compared to other mammals, and this will be important when we get  to Tools.


20 million years ago Apes have evolved from monkeys.  Apes are bigger and stronger than monkeys.  Male apes are able to cooperate enough to successfully maintain The Seventh Commitment -Collective Defence of the Group against predators, such as boa constrictors big cats, and male outsiders.


About six million years ago our ancestors broke with the trees and made The Eighth Commitment - Walking or: Standing on Their Own Two Feet.  Being primates they had already benefited from improved hand-eye coordination,  so it wasn’t long before they learned to walk long distances, and then to make Stone Tools, such as knives and axes.


Now, you may or may not have noticed that for the last 250 million years, all this time that mothers were caring for their infants, there is little or no evidence of fathers’ commitment to care.   Two million years ago this would all change when the first humans came on the scene.  And here’s why:


Do you remember those maternal hormones that worked so well to create a mother child bond - Prolactin and Oxytocin?  These are produced in male bodies as well, because males and females share most of the same genetic material.  And you may have noticed that humans don’t have nearly as much body hair as apes.  In fact, without clothes we look pretty naked.

 Anyway, my point is that skin-to-skin contact can lead to the release of oxytocin in both males and females and this can facilitate falling in love and Pair Bonding, which is otherwise rare in primates, and doesn’t happen when apes live in groups.   Pair bonding in Chimpanzees is usually prevented by the dominant male who will try to monopolize all the females when they are in estrus.  


Homo Erectus, our hominin precursors, looked a lot more like us then previous Hominins.  It was during their two million year stay on Earth that they were the first to control Fire, and the first to walk out of Africa.


Remember those stone tools we talked about.  They were first used for preparing food, just as knives are today.  They were also used as Weapons.  And here’s where it gets interesting. We note, that in human history, when better weapons are first developed they sometimes have a powerful effect on Social Systems

 Stone knives  would have had a Levelling influence, undermining the rule of the strongest male. They would also have led to social disruption, because now there  would be a continual free fight over women. Previously the dominant male would have controlled this problem, but stone knives may have eliminated his role.


Easy access to knives would have made it a free-for-all until the group as a whole agreed to a system that limited violence and provided stability.  That agreement was the basis for human nature.

 Two million years ago agreements were not about peace, order, and good government.  The agreement had to be simple, it had to be comprehensive, with no exceptions.  Our ancestors had the right hormones to facilitate pair-bonding, but they didn’t have the right social systems until the Invention of stone knives forced their hands.


 Because the dominant male kept order,  that function needed to be filled by something else.  That function, of allocating women and resources,and controlling violent public behaviour, had to be replaced by a special type of collective commitment. Thus the Ninth Commitment - the commitment to Monogamy and Morality. Today, in almost every human society the vast majority of men and women live in monogamous relationships, which means that somehow, and I think it was two million years ago, we established  monogamous social systems.  Thus males and females committed to living in and supporting long-term relationships.


Animals do most things from self-interest. Humans choose to follow rules that can directly oppose their own self-interest.   This is most obvious in morality.  In morality we have lists of Dos and Don'ts.  We all internalize these rules and we often enthusiastically judge those who break them. Justifying your behaviour by saying that you acted in your own interest doesn’t cut it morally.  Everyone is on the lookout for people who violate moral rules, and if they are  caught, they are punished by various means.

We all can and do feel judgemental about people who have affairs. We realize that they are doing it out of powerful desires, but judge these people for not constraining their desires. The fact is that if people didn't actively constrain themselves, monogamy would be a joke. The only thing natural about monogamy is that it reflects the pair-bond, the deep mutual attachment that can form when two people fall in love. But the trouble is that, in many cases, love doesn't last, and it can be overridden by new attractions. That's why the group had to come together and make a collective commitment, simultaneously creating the social institution of monogamy and the first moral system. My guess is that initially it was simply an agreement to control violence, and allow for pair-bonding and social stability, and the initiators had no idea of the positive consequences that would ensue.


In a single stroke monogamy would have led to fathers being more assured of the paternity of their children, the inclusion of in-laws, and thus, the effective enlargement of groups; the division of labour between males and females, and the sharing of resources among the nuclear family.  In effect, monogamy led to camp fires, cooking, and fatherhood.


At some unknown time, perhaps 100,000 years ago, by increasing social stability and encouraging sharing, monogamy made Language - The Tenth Commitment possible.


Female mammals committed to maternal care; most mammals committed to living in groups; male baboons and apes committed to collective protection of the group; humans first committed to a monogamous social system and then committed to using language.  The trend in all of these commitments is towards the facilitation of longer childhoods, greater learning flexibility, bigger brains,  and more effective and complex forms of cooperation.  Humans have the longest period of childhood, the greatest ability to learn new things, and are by far the most cooperative.  


Remember the camp fire:  Sharing stories, sharing food, singing songs together, facing the darkness together.  Almost everything we do as humans involves sharing: talking, singing, eating, playing, working, building, caring, and loving.  This is what separates us from the animals.  

Friday, October 12, 2018

The Forbidden Fruit

I am not a Christian, I am a philosopher.  That being said, it strikes me that to understand what morality is, it helps to begin with the story of the Garden of Eden.  First of all, the story of Eden is a myth of origin;  and to understand something complex like morality we could start by using our imagination instead of analysing it to death, as we philosophers have done for two and a half thousand years.

 Interestingly, no one knows where morality came from or how it came about.  Many, many philosophers since Plato, and he lived and wrote 2400 years ago, have been fascinated by the topic of morality.  They have many theories about what it is, but they have never come to an agreement.

In contrast, science is younger than philosophy;  it is only 500 years old;  but the thing about science is that even if scientists have disagreements, they eventually come around to agreeing on the main subjects.

 This has not happened with the concept of morality.  There is no agreement.  Some say morality is obedience to God’s commands, others, that it is derived from the general Good, others, that it is derived from Duty, others that it is human perfection,  others, that it is mutual reasonableness, others, that it is a special class of  (moral) sentiments, others, that it is reasoning about moral discourse.  The problem of figuring out what morality is seems an awful lot like the story of the blind men standing around an elephant trying to understand what it is, each touching a different part - the legs, the body, the trunk, and the tusks -  but none of them able to see what it looks like as a whole.

 Take the ten commandments in the Hebrew Bible, an early written attempt to summarize core moral principles,  supposedly written in stone and brought down from the mountain by Moses to give to the Israelites.  One of those commandments refers back to Genesis:  observe the Sabbath, you must set aside the seventh day of the week - just as God rested on the seventh day of creation.

Whew!  Creation must have been a hard job for God.  Doesn’t God sound like a cranky old man who needs a breather after a hard week  creating the  Universe? According to Genesis, God liked to walk in the cool of the evening. (Naturally, because in the part of the world where Genesis was written - the Middle East - the midday sun is beating down on you.) Genesis is folksy and makes God to be sort-of like one of us.

 It’s likely that Exodus, the story of Moses and the Israelites, was written by a different writer than Genesis.  One of the things that the book of Exodus does which Genesis doesn’t, is create a strong sense of identity for the Israelites.  Genesis is about the beginnings, lost in the mists of time.  Exodus is about establishing a powerful group identity.  A desert tribe that follows ten commandments is one that distinguishes itself from other tribes.

 For some Jews and Christians the  commandment to honour the Sabbath is seen as a moral rule, because they believe that Genesis and Exodus are both literally true, but that is not the case for the vast majority of people on Earth, who disagree. There are hundreds if not thousands of religions, all of them with different versions of the creation myth.  So a commandment to make one day of the week a day of rest because of what is written in the Hebrew Bible cannot really be a universal rule, and therefore it is not a moral rule.

Intuitively we believe that everyone is subject to moral rules.  But if there are a multiplicity of religions, then there are a multiplicity of so-called moral rules:  such as rules about forbidden types of meat, rules about who you can marry, and rules about what is sacred and what is profane.  If we go too far with this line of inquiry we end up saying that there are many cultures with many kinds of moralities.  But if this is so, then moral rules cannot be universal, which contradicts our intuitions.  It can’t be the case that morality is relative to the culture that you live in because this implies that what is morally wrong for me is not morally wrong for you.  That’s why  it’s a better idea to abandon trying to ground morality on  religion, and instead seek a more evidence-based form of moral knowledge.

So why talk about the garden?  Whoever compiled the Bible ( most probably Ezra) produced a master stroke by putting this particular story of the garden of Eden right at the beginning.  It’s actually a creation story that places the origin of morality at the beginning of human existence;  it is presented as the first story to be told, in effect.   I’m assuming that most of my readers are at least vaguely familiar with the story of the garden of Eden.  If so, or even if not, this is a wonderful story that is hard not to forget, once you’ve heard it. First, God creates a beautiful garden, full of plants and animals;  then God creates humankind in “His” image.

The idea that humans were created in the image of God is a fascinating idea, but no one knows what it means, because God is not visible to the human eye.  My concern here is that this idea, that humans are created in God’s image, since we can’t see God, is more likely to be a projection of our own imagination.  It’s more a fact that we see God in our image, rather than vice versa. And that seems to be the result in Genesis, because God is depicted as a cranky old man, who prudently stays out of the noonday sun, and needs to rest at least once a week for an entire day.

Now Plato, in my mind, the greatest philosopher of all time, claims in a book called The Republic, probably the greatest work of Philosophy so far, that apprehending true moral knowledge is like looking directly at the Sun after having lived  cooped up in a cave all of your life.   If we want to learn the Truth, Plato thought that we need to be indirect, that is, we need to learn, not from day to day experience, but from  contemplation of purer forms of abstractions such as “the Good” and “Justice”;  just as it seemed to Plato that mathematical knowledge comes from pure mathematical abstractions, rather than actual imperfect objects.   This has proven to be a much more seductive view of morality than the more down-to-earth view in Genesis, especially for philosophers.  For all we know, Plato’s parable of the cave may have had more influence on Christian Theology and Western Civilization than the Hebrew book of  Genesis.

 So, on with the story!   In the middle of the garden is a tree called the “tree of knowledge of good and evil”  God tells Adam and Eve that they can eat the fruits of all of the trees in the garden except this one.  Now, I ask you -   why would God single out this particular tree?  Why wouldn’t God want Adam and Eve to  eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge?  The author of Genesis slyly supplies the hint: one of the creatures in this garden is a talking snake, who tells Eve that God does not want them to eat the fruit because if they do they will become more like a God themselves. The snake, no doubt, has a hidden agenda, which leads it to  suggest to Eve that it would be well worth it to disobey God.

Later on in Genesis, you have the story of “The Tower of Babel”, where God is quoted as saying  he doesn’t want the builders to make a tower that reaches to the heavens because they will become too much like the Gods if they do.  God, proactively causes all the builders to speak mutually unintelligible languages or "Babel", (short for Babylon, which is the writer of Genesis' little way of mocking the Babylonians) - so that they get confused and can’t finish the tower. (Is that why philosophy was invented too - to confuse people about what morality actually is?)

 So it’s as close as it gets to being official - God is ambivalent about humankind. God created them in “His” image, but is dead serious about preventing humans from becoming too much like “Him”.  After all, God, the cranky old man, doesn’t want them to eat the fruit, and yet he puts the tree right in the middle of the garden and he draws the humans attention to it further, by forbidding them to eat from it.  Any parent knows that if you forbid something that is attractive and easily accessible, you are asking for trouble.   And Adam and Eve are so, so, human, being the first of their kind.

 Just think for a minute - each and everyone of us  will want to do what is right and avoid doing what is wrong.  It is absolutely a mark of being human that we need to know the difference between good and evil.  Only the human species uniquely desire this fruit, and to a man or a women, we are not capable of resisting its seductions.  But then, neither can God do anything but act the part too, by throwing Adam and Eve out of Eden for disobedience.

 The story imagines God the creator as Father, and Adam and Eve as children.  We might agree that, in real life, we do not expect infants to know the difference between good and evil,  but we expect that  they will learn the difference as they mature. In the meantime, as they are growing up, we expect them to follow our rules and commands.  The old way is that if children disobey their parents, especially their father, they need to be punished to be shown their place and to be set on the right path.  Hence the “moral”  of this story and perhaps the main reason why this particular story was chosen to begin the Bible.

From a philosophical perspective, what is going on here? First, the Biblical editor's  selection and placement of Book of Genesis implies that the acquisition of moral knowledge marks the real beginning of the human story.  God does not need to forbid the other animals from eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, because animals don’t care about being right or wrong. But God is forced to throw the humans out of Eden because they cannot exist as humans without the knowledge of good and evil. Hence, having moral knowledge is exactly what sets us apart from all other creatures.  This is the irony of human nature.

 No wonder the first two humans get into such trouble; the whole thing is a set-up!  The very idea that we can gain moral knowledge by eating the fruit from a tree is simply diabolical; but what a delicious idea:  it is so physical, so scrumptious!  And yet, we all know intuitively that it doesn’t work that way -  as if we could gain moral knowledge by consuming a  pill;  we know that gaining moral knowledge is not easy -  it takes work and it involves a lot of  negative emotions and unpleasant feelings;  it can’t be right to gain that knowledge just by eating a piece of fruit -  but who wouldn’t consume this fruit if they had the chance?  No one!

God, the lonely old father, really wanted us to stay in Eden but made the serious mistake of creating the first humans in “His” image.  If God had just dropped that little requirement, then humans could have permanently resided in the garden, but then they wouldn’t have been human would they?  How diabolical!




                                                  II



  What happens  after Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit?  It's one of those stories that some of us love to hear again and again, because it seems preordained,  a kind of formula:  God has created a “perfect” garden full of wonderful things, and there is just one tree and one fruit that Adam and Eve are not allowed to eat there.  Someone whispers seditious ideas into their heads and by a single act of disobedience they inadvertently destroy all that beauty and perfection. What a  tragedy!  But it is not, in fact, the act of eating the fruit that gets them turfed out of Eden, it seems instead that the consequences of  their gaining  moral knowledge is what really riles up Jehovah.
Once Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit they become aware for the first time that they are naked.  That is, they realize that they are doing something wrong, just as we would know we were doing something wrong if we walked around naked in public.  And, having acquired moral knowledge, they are motivated to correct their wrong by covering their genitals with fig leaves.  Plus knowing now that they have done wrong, they feel guilty and hide, as young children might do.

But God, who, as we all know by now, customarily takes his walks in the cool of the evening, is on to them. “Where are you and why are hiding?”  God asks.  “We saw that we were naked so we covered ourselves with leaves and hid,” says Eve.    “Who Told You That You Were Naked?”  (It’s impossible  for me to read that sentence and not imagine it spoke in a loud booming male voice.)

 The story both makes perfect sense, and doesn’t make sense at all, depending on your perspective.  It makes perfect sense if we picture God as the Father and Adam and Eve as the children,  but it makes no sense if God was a perfect, all-powerful, all-knowing being.  I’m tempted to say that Christian Theologians abandoned the Genesis image of God (as an irritable old man) and instead were more heavily influenced by Plato’s attractive idea of Perfection, which then renders the story quite absurd. But I am more interested in how morality was pictured by the author of Genesis, who, thankfully,  lived some time before Plato.

The author of Genesis is telling us that Morality is just what distinguishes us from all other animals; that knowing right from wrong motivates our behaviour in a way that does not exist for other kinds of animals, that we have feelings of guilt and regret for doing wrong, and that wrong behaviour needs to be punished.  Note the focus on wrong behaviour and on punishment.  Even the ten commandments are mostly prohibitions rather than  a “to-do list”.  This is not a coincidence.  Prohibitions are simpler types of rules, and easier to remember and to follow.  In contrast, what is permitted is impossible to detail in advance because of the sheer number of things that we can do.  This is an important point, so I want to emphasize it here: we can easily supply a short list of forbidden things, but it is impossible to list all the things that we are permitted to do, there  just are too many.

The author of Genesis may have been hinting at the idea that God didn’t want us to have moral knowledge because to some of us it seems to go beyond our finite capacity for understanding.  Better to leave that complicated stuff to God, just as parents don’t usually expect their toddlers to know the ins and outs of right and wrong.

As an actual explanation for how humans got morality, the book of Genesis is both imaginative and suggestive, but obviously it is not an  accurate or a complete picture at all.  Still it is a better account than most modern philosophical treatments of the subject, which largely derive from the works of either Plato or Aristotle.  Perhaps it is because Genesis was written independently of Greek Philosophy that it still has something important to say .  There are five basic things about morality that the book of  Genesis gets right:  that morality is a special kind of knowledge, that morality focuses on collective human interests rather than individual interests (eg. the wrong of public nudity), that it distinguishes us from animals, that it involves motivation and the guidance of behaviour, and that punishment is essential in its administration.  Pretty good for the first story in the  Bible.

What Exodus, the second book,  gets right about a moral system is  that it requires  full group adherence, collective kinds of enforcement, and collective expressions of group identity. This may not be intuitively obvious to people today, but that is largely because we have successfully internalized morality and it forms the background to all our behaviour.

Many modern moral philosophers, (remember the blind men and the elephant!) with the exception of Bernard Gert,   don’t get that  what is fundamental about morality  is exactly that it distinguishes humans from other animals.   Instead, they point to  the existence of language as that dividing line.  Twentieth Century moral philosophy, often called meta-ethics, is all about the language of morality, moral concepts, moral reasoning, moral discourse, and moral expression.  It largely centers on language, ignoring the importance of punishment, group identity, simple prohibitions, and any demarcation between humans and other animals.  My suspicion is that because philosophers are so good with words and definitions, they tend to obsess about language when talking about morality.

The book of Genesis is a valuable antidote, because it avoids this emphasis on linguistics altogether.    I can see another reason that Philosophers avoid the account in Genesis too.  Evolutionary moral philosophers maintain that morality evolved gradually, so they are invested in the idea that there is no real demarcation between humans and animals.  Also, origins are not fashionable these days, for various reasons having to do with the real difficulties of looking  that far back into human history. My thinking is this:  When we try and imagine how morality originated we are undoubtedly taking a big risk, due to the lack of clear evidence.  All the same, the story of the garden of Eden does a good job of opening up the question concerning the nature of morality, and in doing so it also uncovers some of the paradoxes and complexities involved in  that understanding.


Monday, October 8, 2018

Two Versions of Reality

One hundred and sixty years ago there were two diametrically opposite views of the reality of slavery:  the view of the South that slavery was a “noble” institution, reflecting human nature, with abolitionism seen as a serious danger to social stability;  and the view of Northerners that slavery was wrong and shouldn’t be allowed to spread to the new states in the West.

In 1856 a famous incident in the United States  actually helped to crystallize this divide.  Senator Graham Sumner was an abolitionist.  He was viciously caned in the Senate chambers by a Congressman from South Carolina over his remarks attacking the institution of slavery and the immorality of the slave owners.   Sumner, who had no means to defend himself, came close to death. It took him three years to physically recover enough to return to Senate duties.   The Southern Congressman, Preston Brook was literally given a hero’s welcome in the South.

The effect of Sumner’s caning on Northern opinion was to become more profound and transformative over time.  The growing outrage over the caning of Sumner energized the fledgling Republican party, leading, four years later, to the election of America’s greatest President, Abraham Lincoln. But the South collectively refused to accept the democratic results of Lincoln’s election and attempted to abandon the Union en masse.  The Civil War was the result of what amounted to an epistemic crisis over the reality of slavery.

Something has crystallized over the last few days, early in October  2018. It has become apparent that the controversy over the  Kavanaugh Supreme Court Confirmation was really a  conflict over two versions of reality.  “He said, she said,”  refers to two particular views of the family, the role of the father, and the status of men and women.   

According to the Linguist George Lakoff, Conservatives see the family and by analogy, politics and society in terms of a “Strict Father”  “Strict Father” is the traditional view that the father is the unquestioned authority in the family, and the duty of his wife and children is to obey him.  Projected onto the political situation, it means unquestioning support of male authority figures and male led institutions.  It means the silencing and denigration of women who are witnesses to sexual abuse.  Projected onto political ideology it means that income assistance and universal medicare are bad programs because they reward bad behaviour.  It means inequality is good, because it reflects natural differences, eg.  males are naturally superior to females.  It is not much of a stretch of the imagination to see how similar this view is to the Southerners’ view that the slaveholder was a superior specimen to the slave.

Patriarchy, the unquestioned rule by males, is a breeding ground for sexual abuse, precisely because it gives men unchecked power to abuse and to cover up their abuse and silence their victims.  It is not a coincidence that religious conservatives fear feminism. Neither is it a coincidence that a mark of Fascism is the cult of masculinity. Nor, that women who publicize allegations of sexual harassment are bombarded by anonymous death threats on the web. 

Supporters of Donald Trump’s Presidency see him as the man who can get the job done.  They didn’t think that a woman was competent for the job, and their hatred of Trump’s female challenger Hilary Clinton, seemed fanatical.  Remember “Lock her up!”  I am 65 and I have never heard any group of people speak that way about a Presidential candidate before.  Trump became embroiled in a controversy involving accusations of sexual harassment and a recording in which he boasts of inappropriate sexual touching of women.  That controversy appeared to solidify and strengthen his support.  His followers seem to especially appreciate the way he openly mocks and denigrates women in public rallies and on Twitter.  There is plenty of evidence that Trump goes out of his way to denigrate his female opponents in a way that he doesn’t when talking of his male opponents.  But it’s not just words.  Trump has had multiple wives, and multiple affairs, the latest of which, he had with a porn star after his wife Melania gave birth to his youngest son.   It would be hard to come up with a better example of a “male chauvinist pig” than Trump.

What would have been political suicide before 2016 became a hidden strength in Trump’s campaign, and the only thing that could have made this possible  was his penchant for saying whatever he felt in order to deliberately offend and the remarkable way that that energized his supporters.    Donald Trump has made misogyny great again.  But he didn’t do it alone, he had help from Evangelical Christians, who are so concerned about a blocking a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have a baby, that they threw their wholehearted moral support behind an amoral, lying, adulterer. 

Trump just stated that he was afraid for young men growing up in today’s world due to #MeToo and Blasey-Ford’s allegations against Judge Kavanaugh.  This is not surprising, given that #MeToo was a powerful grassroots movement that was largely motivated by the response to his election in 2016.  It’s quite possible that Blasey-Ford would not have come forward with her allegations if not for MeToo. 

Recent events testify to the fanaticism and fervour with which supporters of patriarchy want to turn the clock back on MeToo and equal rights.  Make no mistake about it -  in the Confirmation of Kavanaugh we are witnessing a powerful coordinated action to reverse progressive advances and bring back the dark ages.

Monday, April 23, 2018

What the Nazis did to Morality


Stuart Hampshire was a British Philosopher who worked as an Intelligence officer for Britain during the second world war and interviewed some of the leading Nazis in captivity immediately after the war ended.  The quotes are taken from his book, Innocence and Experience (1989) Chapter 2:  “Justice and History”.  

One of Hampshire’s insights is that there is a bottom ground to morality that is more basic, and, without which, any part directed at increasing the public good is ineffective.  It was this bottom ground of morality, a sense of justice, that the Nazis destroyed.
“ There is a sense in which justice, both procedural and substantial, can be called a negative virtue…. It is negative in comparison with love and friendship, or courage, or intelligence.  One has to ask, in a Hobbesian spirit, what it prevents rather than what it engenders.”


“The Nazi revolution was a revolution of destruction, and more particularly, of moral destruction...The aim was to eliminate all notions of fairness and justice from practical politics, and, as far as possible, from person's minds; to create a bombed and flattened moral landscape, in which there are no boundaries and no limits...”


According to Hampshire,  a strong influence on his moral ideas, “was the sordid behaviour of the leading politicians in Britain confronting Nazism in Germany and Fascism elsewhere...It became obvious that they were ready to tolerate Fascist outrages and threats, and even to curry favour with Fascists, for the sake of protecting private property….I could observe this servility of Conservatives in the face of Fascism at first-hand, because I had become a colleague at All Souls’ College, Oxford, of some of the leading appeasers of Hitler."


“Revenge was to be substituted for justice in relation to enemies, loyalty to party and to race was to replace impartiality, and favour and maltreatment were to depend on a person’s origins rather than on his character… The weak and the handicapped and helpless minorities were to be destroyed, rather than helped...Justice was to be identified with the interest of the more powerful, and the exercise of power was to require no justification and to admit no restraint…”

“Below any level of explicitly articulating hatred of the idea of the Jews was tied to the hatred of the power of the intellect as opposed to military power, hatred of law courts, of negotiation, of cleverness in argument, of learning and the domination of learning:  and in this way anti-Semitism is tied to hatred of justice itself, which must set a limit to the exercise of power and to domination…”

“Hitler and his thousands of devoted followers were furiously impatient with all moral complexities and anxieties as such, and were determined to destroy in Germany, once and for all, the tradition of moral and disputable limits in the pursuit of power.”

Is it a coincidence that we now have an American President whose egregious behaviour challenges basic standards of decency, who openly admires Dictators and Authoritarian leaders, and who calls American Nazis "some very fine people"?




Saturday, September 30, 2017

Debt: The First Billion Years

What  is debt?   The word is only one syllable, only four letters, but it packs an entire world of  significance and complexity that few other words do.  In the modern world debt is synonymous  with money. But if we stop at money, we are not doing the concept of debt justice, for it goes far deeper than money in both human and evolutionary history.

I think we need to look at debt as a more universal concept that includes all of life.  I see debt as an ever-changing balance between the present and the future.  If too much of what is present is consumed then debt grows too high and the  future is undermined.  If not enough of the present is taken  then we die before we even start.  There must be a balance.

OK, forget the metaphor.  What is it really? Debt is an obligation owed by the "debtor" to the "creditor".  It is an agreement, a contract, that rests on  legal  definitions of property and human rights. This  presupposes human society, governments, associations, markets,  language, memory,  and the ability of legal institutions to enforce those rights.  Debt exists over time periods that are bound by human events. In these time periods debts can be paid down, renegotiated, forgiven, kept in perpetuity, processed into derivatives, and  can even create a global financial meltdown.

The growth of debt and money are not subject to physical laws but to conceptual laws, ie, mathematics because symbolic concepts are what humans use to communicate and make agreements.  Since debt is not tied to physical laws it can, in theory, grow exponentially.

If humans went extinct there would be no debt, the debt would be paid, so to speak. So debt is ultimately bound by human mortality.  There are limits to the growth of debt therefore.  And human action depends on the existence of the Sun, the Earth and earth, as in dirt and rocks.  These are all finite although Economics treats them as virtually infinite as if they were contained within the human economy.  This is a fatal error, meaning the science of Economics needs to pull a 180.

Why do humans have debt, while other critters don't?   Maybe debt is a biological subject too.   What is the Darwinian explanation?  Let's go back to the metaphor - "an ever-changing  balance between the present and the future"  Every critter has some form of it:  Invest energy now to keep predators at bay in order to survive and pass on descendants; Consume too much and die back;  Exist in symbiosis  with the eco-systems and maintain descendants;   Grow too big, too fast and run out of resources; Migrate to other continents, but eventually run out of eco-systems to destroy, then go terminal.

What I'm getting at is that while debt is a purely human invention, it's meaning and  history have a "biological" continuity.  We use debt in human society to finance investments that we expect to pay off in the future and to help pay for emergencies  All living things sometimes borrow from the future to keep from starving and being eaten.  As long as they succeed in balancing the present and the future they can keep on going, if not, not.   There are a lot of dumb ways to die.
Humans are known for being smart and problem solving.   Humans evolved the capacity to cooperate and share information.  That's what made language, technology and the economic system of trade and markets possible.

There is an ancient association of debt to morality.  The code of Hammarabi stated:  " an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth."  This is moral reciprocity:  if I struck out your eye you could strike out my eye in retaliation.  The concept of punishment derives from this moral sense -  You do something wrong, and you have incurred a debt which gets repaid by a punishment.  When something goes wrong it has to be righted.  There is a balance.  the goddess of justice with her scales exemplifies this moral sense of debt.

This derives from the need, in human society to  balance  individuals and groups.  Groups are what makes humans superior to other animals, but individuals are the source of variation.  Without individual variations populations cannot adapt to environmental changes and they go extinct.  But individuals can take advantage of group sharing and cooperation by free-riding without contributing to the group.

 Moral rules and religion are ways that groups control individuals, so that individuals are, for the most part, prevented from taking advantage of the group as a whole. If this were not the case, then groups would have fragmented long ago and humans would have lost out to other primates.

Primate societies operate on dominance relations.  One's ability to reproduce is reflected by one's social dominance.  This creates a social order but it leaves a lot of potential unrealized.  In human societies people are infinitely more cooperative.  Compared  to all other animals, only humans care for dependents for extended lengths of time.  The idea that  we owe a debt to our parents or to society has been around for a long time.  It reflects the time we have spent being fed and cared for before we are ready to strike out on our own.

Only humans have marriage, which is an agreement between two families that many ways resembles  a debt because it is the recognition of a mutual obligation.    There are countless wedding ceremonies and customs which in some way symbolize the transfer of debt from old to new, such as the customs of dowries and bride price. The exchange of rings symbolizes a down payment, and the marriage ceremony itself is a mutual contract. The object of marriage has traditionally been for procreation, thus the wedding can be seen as the loan of resources that are required to start a new family.  This may well be the original form of debt.

 Thus, in inventing and using the  concept of debt we recognize that our very existence derives from a give and take between generations and between humanity and nature.

Unfortunately there is one difference between what the concept of debt means in the human economy and what it means in the bigger economy of nature.  In Nature's economy  we can't re-negotiate ourselves out of extinction by filing for bankruptcy.     Can humans negotiate with Climate Change?  In this sense I don't think the huge debts in non-renewable resources that we are piling up will ever be  forgiven.  I think we are in for a rude awakening.

The creativity with which we use the concept of debt today should not blind us to the fact that we need to understand the physical limits of human action and energy use.  In other words, we need to know how the human economy can exist and sustain itself within the Earth's Economy.  Let's use our brains and knowledge to manage all kinds of  debt wisely so that we can continue to have a future.