Monday, February 05, 2018

Disenchanted naturalism

The Disenchanted Naturalist’s Guide to Reality
by Alex Rosenberg

This is a précis of an argument that naturalism forces upon us a very disillusioned “take” on reality. It is one that most naturalists have sought to avoid, or at least qualify, reinterpret, or recast to avoid its harshest conclusions about the meaning of life, the nature of morality, the significance of our consciousness self-awareness, and the limits of human self-understanding. This is a vast agenda and it’s presumptuous to address it even in a format 30 times longer than this one. My excuse is that I stand on the shoulders of giants: the many heroic naturalists who have tried vainly, I think, to find a more hopeful version of naturalism than this one.

We all lie awake some nights asking questions about the universe, its meaning, our place in it, the meaning of life, and our lives, who we are, what we should do, as well as questions about god, free will, morality, mortality, the mind, emotions, love. These worries are a luxury compared to the ones most people on Earth address. But they are persistent. And yet they all have simple answers, ones we can pretty well read off from science. 

Most scientists are reluctant to admit science’s answers to the persistent questions are obvious. There are more than enough reasons they are reluctant to do so. The best reason is that the answers to the persistent questions are not what people want to hear, and the bad news may lead them to kill the messenger—scientific research. It’s people who pay for  science through their support of the NIH, the NSF, and the universities where most  research happens. So, scientists have an incentive to cover up.

Even if scientists came clean however, most people wouldn’t accept the answers science gives to the persistent questions because they can’t understand the answers. The reason is that the answers don’t come in the form of stories with plots. What science has discovered about reality can’t be packaged into whodunit narratives about motives and actions. The human mind is the product of a long process of selection for being able to scope out other people’s motives. The way nature solved the problem of endowing us with that ability is by making us conspiracy theorists—we see motives everywhere in nature, and our curiosity is only satisfied when we learn the “meaning” of things—whose purposes they serve. The fundamental laws of nature are mostly timeless mathematical truths that work just as well backwards as forward, and in which purposes have no role. That’s why most people have a hard time wrapping their minds around physics or chemistry. It’s why science writers are always advised to get the science across to people by telling a story, and why it never really works. Science’s laws and theories just don’t come in stories with surprising starts, exciting middles and satisfying dénouements. That makes them hard to remember and hard to understand. Our demand for plotted narratives is the greatest obstacle to getting a grip on reality. It’s also what greases the skids down the slippery slope to religion’s “greatest story ever told.” Scientism helps us see how mistaken the demand for stories instead of theories really is.

But the process that Darwin discovered–random, or rather blind variation, and natural selection, or rather passive environmental filtration–does all the work of explaining the means/ends economy of biological nature that shouts out ‘purpose’ or ‘design’ at us. What Darwin showed was that all of the beautiful suitability of living things to their environment, every case of fit between organism and niche, and all of the intricate meshing of parts into wholes, is just the result of blind causal processes. It’s all just the foresightless play of fermions and bosons producing, in us conspiracy-theorists, the illusion of purpose.

If there is no purpose to life in general, biological or human for that matter, the question arises whether there is meaning in our individual lives, and if it is not there already, whether we can put it there. One source of meaning on which many have relied is the intrinsic value, in particular the moral value, of human life. People have also sought moral rules, codes, principles which are supposed to distinguish us from merely biological critters whose lives lack (as much) meaning or value (as ours). Besides morality as a source of meaning, value, or purpose, people have looked to consciousness, introspection, self-knowledge as a source of insight into what makes us more than the merely physical facts about us. Scientism must reject all of these straws that people have grasped, and it’s not hard to show why. Science has to be nihilistic about ethics and morality.

There is no room in a world where all the facts are fixed by physical facts for a set of free floating independently existing norms or values (or facts about them) that humans are uniquely equipped to discern and act upon. So, if scientism is to ground the core morality that every one (save some psychopaths and sociopaths) endorses, as the right morality, it’s going to face a serious explanatory problem. The only way all or most normal humans could have come to share a core morality is through selection on alternative moral codes or systems, a process that resulted in just one winning the evolutionary struggle and becoming “fixed” in the population. 

This nihilistic blow is cushioned by the realization that Darwinian processes operating on our forbears in the main selected for niceness! The core morality of cooperation, reciprocity and even altruism that was selected for in the environment of hunter-gatherers and early agrarians, continues to dominate our lives and social institutions. We may hope the environment of modern humans has not become different enough eventually to select against niceness. But we can’t invest our moral core with more meaning than this: it was a convenience, not for us as individuals, but for our genes. There is no meaning to be found in that conclusion.

We have to add to these illusions of the will and sensory experience, robust experimental results which reveal that we actually navigate the world looking through the rear-view mirror! We don’t even see what is in front of our eyes, but continually make guesses about it based on what has worked out in our individual and evolutionary past. Discovering the illusion that we are looking through the windshield in stead of the rear view mirror, along with so much more that neuroscience is uncovering about the brain,  reveals that the mind is no more a purpose-driven system than anything else in nature. 

Perhaps the most profound illusion introspection foists on us is the notion that our thoughts are actually recorded anywhere in the brain at all in the form introspection reports. This has to be the profoundest illusion of all, because neuroscience has been able to show that networks of human brain cells are no more capable of representing facts about the world the way conscious introspection reports than are the neural ganglia of sea slugs!

It’s just a useful heuristic device, one with only a highly imperfect grip on what is going on in thought. Consequently, there is no point asking for the real, the true, the actual meaning of a work of art, or the meaning of an agent’s act, still less the meaning of a historical event or epoch. The demand of the interpretive disciplines, that we account for ideas and artifacts, actions and events, in terms of their meanings, is part of the insatiable hunger for stories with plots, narratives, and whodunits that human kind have insisted on since natural selection made us into conspiracy-theorists a half a million years ago or so.

Nevertheless, if the mind is the brain (and scientism can’t allow that it is anything else), we have to stop taking consciousness seriously as a source of knowledge or understanding about the mind, or the behavior the brain produces. And we have to stop taking our selves seriously too. We have to realize that there is no self, soul or enduring agent, no subject of the first-person pronoun, tracking its interior life while it also tracks much of what is going on around us. This self cannot be the whole body, or its brain, and there is no part of either that qualifies for being the self by way of numerical-identity over time. 

i) This is a lot more candid than the usual atheist propaganda. Indeed, Rosenberg says right out of the gate that most of his fellow-atheists are lowballing the nihilistic implications of atheism.

ii) Rosenberg illustrates the predicament of an atheist who strives to consistently develop an inconsistent paradigm. Naturalism suffers from internal contradictions, so that when you try to take it to a logical extreme, it generates head-on collisions. For instance, Rosenberg confidently appeals to a scientific description of reality. An objective, third-person description of what the world is really like. 

Yet he says minds are reducible to brains, and brains can't represent facts about the world. But scientific knowledge relies on the understanding of human observers! 

But that contradiction is unresolvable within his naturalistic paradigm. You can only relieve the tension by scrapping the paradigm. 

iii) He says:

This nihilistic blow is cushioned by the realization that Darwinian processes operating on our forbears in the main selected for niceness! The core morality of cooperation, reciprocity and even altruism.

According to him, evolutionary psychology has brainwashed us to practice cooperation, reciprocity and even altruism. But even on its own grounds, the obvious problem with that "cushion" is that brainwashing is only effective if you don't know you've been brainwashed. He himself is pulling back to explain how moral instincts are an illusion. But once you see through the programming, it no longer controls you. Agents must remain oblivious to their conditioning for that to pull the wool over their eyes. 

In the past, there were infidels who personally ridiculed and repudiated Christianity, yet they still promoted civil religion to keep the unwashed masses subservient to the ruling class. They felt the rank-and-file needed a religion of carrots and sticks to keep them from getting out of hand. Infidels didn't subscribe to the social mores of civil religion, but they feared the rabble.  

Ironically, Rosenberg is saying evolutionary psychology performs the same function as civil religion. The intelligentsia know it's a ruse, but it serves their purpose to keep the hoi polloi in the dark. Too much nihilism is a dangerous thing! That's a trade secret of the secular illuminati. 

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