Saturday, January 27, 2018

Morally corrosive

And “morally corrosive” is exactly the term that some critics would apply to the new science of the moral sense. The attempt to dissect our moral intuitions can look like an attempt to debunk them. Evolutionary psychologists seem to want to unmask our noblest motives as ultimately self-interested — to show that our love for children, compassion for the unfortunate and sense of justice are just tactics in a Darwinian struggle to perpetuate our genes. The explanation of how different cultures appeal to different spheres could lead to a spineless relativism, in which we would never have grounds to criticize the practice of another culture, no matter how barbaric, because “we have our kind of morality and they have theirs.” And the whole enterprise seems to be dragging us to an amoral nihilism, in which morality itself would be demoted from a transcendent principle to a figment of our neural circuitry.

Here is the worry. The scientific outlook has taught us that some parts of our subjective experience are products of our biological makeup and have no objective counterpart in the world. The qualitative difference between red and green, the tastiness of fruit and foulness of carrion, the scariness of heights and prettiness of flowers are design features of our common nervous system, and if our species had evolved in a different ecosystem or if we were missing a few genes, our reactions could go the other way. Now, if the distinction between right and wrong is also a product of brain wiring, why should we believe it is any more real than the distinction between red and green? And if it is just a collective hallucination, how could we argue that evils like genocide and slavery are wrong for everyone, rather than just distasteful to us?


  1. I guess I'm confused about how the author gets from, "some parts of our subjective experience... have no objective counterpart in the world," to the difference between red and green.

    I mean, I'm what sense is the distinction between red and green subjective having no objective counterpart? Is the author saying that there is no objective difference between the color of a cherry and the color of a cherry leaf?

    There is such a thing as the color spectrum and the colors correspond to light with different wavelengths but that is somehow subjective with no objective component?

    I'm in science and teaching by trade and I've got peer reviewed publications about using spectrometry to make determinations about marine microalgae. But I guess that's all bunk since the difference between red and green has no objective basis.

    Either you picked a wonky quote or the author is doing a bad job of explaining the concept or the concept itself is retarded.

    1. You're confusing the raw data with the qualia.

    2. I was going to make that very same point. It's just factually incorrect to say that the distinction between red and green have no counterpart in the objective world. And "counterpart" is a good word. The fact that a cherry reflects certain light wavelengths is *precisely* a *counterpart* of the phenomenal experience of red that we have. It isn't identical to it. Our phenomenal experience itself isn't "in" the world. What is in the world are certain shapes of molecules, and light rays, and an interaction between the light rays and the shapes that cause some wavelengths but not others to bounce back and hence bounce into our eyes. And those objective factors differ between the objects we call red and those we call green. This is basic science.

      The same is true of differing smells. It's true that scent, in the phenomenal way we experience it, isn't "in" the objects, but it is also true that different molecular shapes enter our noses and that there is a real correlation between the phenomenal experiences that most people have and the differing shapes of the molecules in question.

      Now, all that being said, that doesn't make the distinction between red and green *intrinsically morally significant* or something, but that's a separate question.

      It sounds to me like this author got hold of some half-baked misunderstanding of Locke's distinction between primary and secondary qualities and took it to mean (perhaps taught this by a poor philosophy teacher) that secondary qualities "have no objective counterpart in the world." Which is bunk, as Locke could have told him.

    3. I mean that I was going to make the same point as Mr. Fosi. I don't think he's confusing anything with anything. The qualia *do* have a "counterpart in the world." That's Mr. Fosi's point, and mine.

    4. I guess my opinion of the term 'qualia' is very much like my opinion of many other philosophical terms in that it is interesting to ponder for a bit but it doesn't really have any cash value on the street of actual life.

      It's like people who like to make the argument about the falability of memory to the extent that they somehow relish to think about how all their memories have no objective basis.

      Yes, there are experiences we can't properly verbalize. It Dian by follow that we can make a wall between them and objective reality.

    5. Qualia are real, mental, and are a separate thing from mind-external reality, but that doesn't mean there is some kind of great gulf between them and no counterpart between qualia and external reality. In limited cases (like literal hallucination) there is, but not in the normal case.

    6. Yes, that's the impression I got while reading about them.

      The term doesn't seem to be well suited for the sort of the discussion that the NYT author wants to have. We can't gain the kind of detachment from our own perceptions that the author seems to be pining for, so diddling around with the concept doesn't really do much for us in our day-to-day.

      We all have to live our lives and we all have faith in our perceptions (admittedly to different degrees depending on context).

  2. If naturalists continue on chiseling the concept of personhood in accordance to their materialistic philosophy, then they will inevitably be rendering our unique characteristics to mere projections of the human mind. According to them, we are nothing more than a bunch of glimmering electrons, clashing atoms, and chemical reactions. This involves the deconstruction of reality, as well as many unspeakably evil societal consequences.