Coyne against Panpsychism

The evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne has long been against panpsychism. He recently published a blog post against the position, or more precisely against an argument raised by Philio Goth in favor of that position. I want to make a few comments on Coyne’s counter-argument. During it, he says –

the absence of evidence that [a rock] has any experience at all—which includes the absence of sense organs, nerves, or any way to get “qualia”—means that we needn’t even consider the idea.

That’s the key point – a rock certainly doesn’t have sense organs, nerves, and so on. But it is quite clear that what’s important about these is not that they’re made of carbon, but rather the (amazingly-complex) information processing they do in the brain. Presumably other types of similar but non-organic information-processing WOULD be conscious. That’s the key idea of modern panpsychism.

No modern panpsychist maintains that tables have a human-like Mind or spirit. They have what conscious content their physical information-processing supports. This clearly doesn’t include anything complicated like vision, pain, self-consciousness, or so on.

Once you accept that information processing is the key, you’re led to try to develop a theory that captures the kind of information processing that DOES lead to consciousness. This theory must fit the consciousness of human brains (that’s the empirical test the theory must meet), yet be general enough to be applicable to any system (if only to say that “this system doesn’t have any consciousness”).

The thing is that once you’re thinking in terms of information processing, you realize a rock DOES engage in some sort of – VERY basic – information processing. So does your theory attribute to it some, VERY low, consciousness?

There are two camps here. One, led by Tononi, maintains a principle of “Exclusion”: noting that a group of humans does not have a shared consciousness, they maintain that we need to identify only the places where the information processing is most concentrated (using the right metric), and there will be consciousness there but not a united consciousness. So that a rock will NOT have a single unified consciousness, just like a group of humans would not, but it would have parts with their own minuscule consciousness – nothing like the complex human mind! – just like that group of humans has parts (the humans) which are conscious.

Others, chiefly Koch, see no need for the principle of exclusion. One can recognize the highly complex consciousness of each individual in the group while also at the same time recognize the flimsy and very weak information processing, and hence consciousness, of the group as a whole. What you end up with is a picture of reality as overlapping consciousnesses – the rock has parts which have a slight consciousness, and also has a slight consciousness as a whole.

I’m more attracted to the latter view. It seems more parsimonious and less arbitrary.

But Cyone’s main attack is against the ‘continuity argument’, which maintains that since human brains are matter that is conscious it’s more parsimonious to assume all matter is. Coyne remarks,

But the continuity argument seems to me flawed. Mind is an emergent property, but so are many aspects of life that distinguish it from non-life: metabolism, hereditary material, directed movement, an “intentional stance”, and so on. Yes, all of these properties are ultimately reducible to molecules, in the sense that their actions must be consistent with the physics of the constituent atoms. But that doesn’t mean that, at some stage in evolution, emergent properties can arise that are not derivable from the properties of atoms.

The problem with this is that “consciousness” is unlike “directed movement”. Directed movement is ultimately physics, at a higher lever of description. It is about physical states and their dynamics. Consciousness is about internal states, about how something feels like from the inside rather than what its physical state is. And that’s gap that just can’t be crossed. Phenomenal properties are not reducible to to physical ones, they are not derivable from the objective (as opposed to subjective, if any) properties of atoms.

That’s why the panpsychists maintain that we need to add a psycho-physical law, in addition to the physical ones – we need to say that such-and-such a system feels like that. The attempt to produce a working panpsychist theory of consciousness (i.e. to make one that does actually make verifiable predictions about the human mind) is the attempt to come up with such a general (and correct) law.

Finally, Coyne also raises the claim that panpsychism is a religious idea.

It seems to me that panpsychism is a numinous concept that feeds into religion by asserting that the whole universe is conscious, which some people consider a religious attitude.

Modern panpsychism is a naturalistic idea – it is the attempt to construct a theory that will explain how consciousness arises in human brains without any appeal to souls, without violating the laws of nature, without any thing supernatural. It may very well be that some adherents of panpsychism, or those pushing it, are doing it for religious reasons, I don’t know, but regardless the theory is fundamentally and strongly a naturalistic attempt at explaining consciousness.

As for the idea of a “conscious universe” – this is diametrically opposed to modern panpsychism. Far-away parts of the universe are causally separated from each other so they engage in no joint information processing and, hence, would have no single unifying consciousness. None at all. If any religiously-minded people are attracted to modern panpsychism because they think it includes a universal consciousness, they are sorely mistaken.

The Answer for the Origin of Life? Maybe!

I started reading The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and The Origin of Life, by biologist Nick Lane, due to recommendations by famed physicist Sean Caroll, and by Bill Gates. I’d like to add my small voice to their choir: go read this book. It’s one of the best best books I’ve read.

In The Vital Question, Nick Lane sets out to answer two of life’s biggest questions: what is the origin of life, and what is the origin of Eukaryotic (complex) life. Along the way, he also addresses the origin of two sexes, ageing, and more. And when I say “answer the question”, I don’t mean do a literary review and float some wild theories; I mean actually developing very-detailed new ideas and testing them with mathematical models and actual experiments. This is extremely impressive.

This is a popular science book, and it’s written well. Nick Lane manages to talk about the biology in the needed detail to get his ideas across, while still describing things vividly and cleaving off unnecessary detail. I was particularly impressed by his description of the goings-on inside the mitochondrion:

Shrink yourself down to the size of an ATP molecule, and zoom in through a large protein pore in the external membrane of a mitochondrion. We find ourselves in a confined space, like the engine room of a boat, packed with overheating protein machinery, stretching as far as the eye can see. The ground is bubbling with what look like tiny balls, which shoot out from the machines, appearing and disappearing in milliseconds. Protons! This whole space is dancing with the fleeting apparitions of protons, the positively charged nuclei of hydrogen atoms. No wonder you can barely see them! Sneak through one of those monstrous protein machines into the inner bastion, the matrix, and an extraordinary sight greets you. You are in a cavernous space, a dizzying vortex where fluid walls sweep past you in all directions, all jammed with gigantic clanking and spinning machines. Watch your head! These vast protein complexes are sunk deeply into the walls, and move around sluggishly as if submerged in the sea. But their parts move at amazing speed. ….

…all sound and fury, signifying… what? You are at the thermodynamic epicenter of the cell, the site of cellular respiration, deep within the mitochondria. Hydrogen is being stripped from the molecular remains of your food, and passed into the first and largest of these giant respiratory complexes, complex I. …. If you, an ATP, were as big as a person, complex I is a skyscraper. … It amounts to a wire, insulated by proteins and lipids, channeling the current of electrons from ‘food’ to oxygen. Welcome to the respiratory chain!

In most of the book he is less picturesque, but his style remains both informative and interesting. He explains a lot of biological detail, but not as a textbook but rather as part of explaining the chain of causation of how things work (according to his theory). And he shares how his theories evolved and changed through his research.

The writing can get quite technical at times, and there were sections I found hard to follow. And Nick Lane has a habit of repeating himself; this ain’t necessarily bad when you’re hammering in new ideas into your reader’s mind, and assuming the reader might not remember all that he read in the previous chapter. Both of these “flaws” don’t detract from the clarity and engagement of the writing, and the glorious reveal of finding out how life and complex life arose.

And yes, I do think he has found the right answers. At least broadly. Of course, the research is not yet conclusive, and I’m not a biologist so maybe I’m missing some glaring flaws in his arguments – but to my uneducated ears he sounds very persuasive. Part of this, surely, is his heavy emphasis of the aspect of energy and physics as constraining and directing the evolution of life. I’ve been attracted to this idea for years now, and Nick Lane brings it to bear in a wonderfully imaginative and meticulous way.

So what is the answer, then? What is the origin of life, and of complex life?

Nick Lane strongly argues for the idea that life requires an energy gradient, and that this has to be a proton-gradient as all life is based on using proton-gradients as a source of energy. He identifies alkaline hydrothermal vents (white chimneys) as the only viable source of such energy and conditions, and discusses his attempts to recreate this early pre-biotic evolution in his lab. Following early chemical evolution within the tiny vesicles in these hydrothermal vents, the proto-cells developed membranes and proton pumps that could generate an artificial proton-gradient, and thus life was free to escape the vents and colonize the entire world.

And what of Eukaryotes? Well, these emerged when in a freak accident one bacterium swallowed another without killing either in the process. This is not a new idea, but Nick Lane adds some new twists to it. He explains in detail why handling the proton gradient requires local attention by locally-available genes, yet bacteria’s method of sex and duplication does not allow them to make such local genes available. The symbiosis between the swallowed bacteria and its host, however, allowed the swallowed bacteria to take up this role, leading to its evolution into the mitochondrion. In the process, virtually all characteristics of the eukaryotic cell evolve: its massive genome, filled with introns, the nucleus, chromosomes, and more.

Finally, Nick Lane goes on to explain why the evolution of specialized tissues led to the evolution of a soma (body) and germline (eggs and sperm), two sexes, and ageing. All of this is heavily influenced by the co-evolution of the mitochondrial genes and the genes in the nucleus, and Lane points out various implications and supporting evidence for this, including why birds are the perfect species (well, perfect in how their mitochondrial DNA matches their nuclear DNA, which means they live longer, have fewer genetic diseases, and can exert themselves much further).

Again, I’m not a biologist. But a lot of what Nick Lane says makes sense to me. Even if the details will turn out wrong, I think in broad strokes he’s right. I suspect he found the core process behind the evolution of life and of complex life (I’m less sure about the whole sex thing). Which is huge.

The Hard Problem of Physics (or: Why Sean Caroll is Wrong on Consciousness)

Physicst Sean Carroll has a new(ish) book out, The Big Picture, in which he basically lays down his answers to the Big Questions (the very thing this blog is interested in). I haven’t read it, but I’m a huge fan of Sean and from what he says about it in his promotional material I’m sure the book will be great.  I intend to buy it as soon as I have a little spare time to actually read it.Sean talks about how we already know the physics of everyday life, and much of the big picture stuff too, and what it means for morality (there are no objective moral truths; we have to make up our own morality) and so on. It really does look great.

But of course I’m not gonna write about any of that. I’m gonna focus on the negative, like the mean old curmudgeon that I am. Specifically, I want to say something about his view on consciousness, at least as it is presented in his teaser blog post “The Big Picture Part Five: Thinking“. Specifically, I want to raise the Hard Problem of Physics.

Sean very rightly mentions the Hard Problem of Consciousness. This is a term invented by philosopher David Chalmers to describe the difficulty of explaining how it is that certain configurations of matter (thinking brains) have the subjective feelings, or conscious experiences, that they do. We can, though physics and biology and so on, establish and explain how a system behaves and thus explain in detail (in theory) the information processing that goes on in the brain. But none of that tells us how the system feels. There is nothing in physics, nothing in science, that lets us jump from what something is (how a physical system is configured and how it changes dynamically) to how something feels (what  is it like to be this system, how does it feel like form the inside). This can be called the “is feels problem” (in analogy to the “is ought problem“). David Chalmers called it the Hard Problem.

In response to Chalmers, computer scientist Scott Aaronson recently coined the term “The Pretty Hard Problem”. The idea is roughly as follows: the Hard Problem implies that there are “psycho-physical laws”, namely that there are laws that would tell what a certain physical system (that’s the “-physical” part) would feel (that’s the “psycho-” part). The Hard Problem is all about understanding why these rules hold – why is it that such-and-such systems feel like that. The “Pretty Hard Problem”, in contrast, is the problem of establishing what these psycho=physical rules are. This is a very hard question, but it’s ultimately a scientific one – one proposes a set of rules, and one tests them empirically (in psychological & neural experiments) and judges them on the basis of their empirical success, simplicity, and so on.

Note the difference from the Hard Problem – it’s going to be very, very hard to establish the psycho-physical laws, but at least it’s a scientific question. I’t going to be impossible to establish why the fundamental psycho-physical laws are what they, however, including why they exist at all. That’s not a scientific question, so we don’t really have a handle on how to establish an answer to it.

There is another Hard Problem, the Hard Problem of Physics: why are the fundamental laws of physics what they are (including why there are such laws at all)? Again, it’s not a scientific question, so we don’t really have a handle on how to answer it. The best answer I’ve come across yet is Max Tegmark’s answer which is, roughly, that everything that is possible, exists; a position he terms the “Mathematical Universe” hypothesis. But even this feels unsatisfactory, as I’m left scratching my head as to why this should be the case (if indeed it is the case; it’s far from clear that it is).

Back to Sean Carroll. From the snippets he offered on his blog, Sean seems to maintain that the Hard Problem “will just gradually fade away as we understand more and more about how the brain actually does work”, and that ” the statement “I have a feeling…” is simply a way of talking about those signals appearing in your brain. There is one way of talking that speaks a vocabulary of neurons and synapses and so forth, and another way that speaks of people and their experiences.”

I disagree. Sort of. I think that understanding more and more about how the brain works will eventually lead us to solve the Pretty Hard Problem of consciousness, namely to experimentally establish a simple and successful “theory of consciousness”, that will be based on psycho-physical laws. These laws will appeal to aggregate entities such as attractors of the dynamic system or the irreducible causal-information within the system, and will associate these with consciousness. These aggregate quantities in this sense will be consciousness, just like “temperature” is the average kinetic energy of matter. And this will allow us to provide a detailed mechanical explanation for mental causation. We could, for example, show that “anger caused him to lash out” in that we could very-specifically identify the aggregate that feels-like anger in the person’s brain and show how its activation causally led to the person lashing out. (In theory. This is a hopeful, far-future scenario.)

Nevertheless, even this future successful theory will not solve the Hard Problem of Consciousness. It will not reveal why these psycho-physical laws hold, or why any such laws hold in the first place. It will not solve the central mystery of consciousness – why and how is it that this piece of matter, this mushy agglomerate of fat and neural tissue, feels. It won’t explain to us, as Sean puts it, “how can collections of such cells or particles ever be said to have an experience of “what it is like” to feel something?”. All it will do, is describe how consciousness works; it won’t provide an ultimate explanation for why it works this way.

Now, this is supposed to be a big deal I guess. I’m not too worried about it. Just like we will never be able to solve the Hard Problem of Physics, we won’t be able to solve the Hard Problem of Consciousness. They are too hard. We can, through science, describe the fundamental laws of nature, including both the laws of physics and the psycho-physical laws. But we cannot, scientifically, establish why these laws hold. And I doubt very much we can establish why they hold philosophically (philosophers have been trying for millennia, and we aren’t any smarter or more knowledgeable about this then they were). The best I can hope for is that the fundamental laws would turn out to be so simple, that we’d be led to think that they kinda make sense – like Max Tegmark’s Mathematical Universe hypothesis.

Why Carrier is Right on Fine-Tuning

EDIT: This post has been edited to better reflect Luke Barnes’ position.

Recently, Richard Carrier has re-opened his public discussion with Luke Barnes on the fine-tuning argument, in a blog post (for Barnes’ reply, see his own blog post). Their discussion is quite tedious and personal, but at the heart of things I think Carrier is right: fine-tuning is evidence against God, for the reasons Carrier champions. I’ll explain.

I think Luke Barnes, who supports the fine-tuning argument, uses a somewhat misleading terminology. What I take “fine tuning” to be, and what I think most physicists do, is the empirical finding that we live in a universe with laws of nature such that if the constants in these laws were to be altered slightly, then the laws would describe a (different) universe where life cannot evolve or survive. The constants in this sense seem to be “fine tuned” to produce life. Let us call this fact about the laws of nature of the universe we actually live in “FT”.

The fine-tuning argument is then the argument that this fact indicates that God exists. Now in judging whether God exists or not, we are contrasting two hypotheses. It does the atheists injustice to say that they simply don’t believe God exists; rather, they believe the world is natural. Barnes usefully provides a way to characterize this view: the atheists believe that all that exists is Lagrangian, meaning that it is described by one particular uniform, local, set of laws of nature. Let us call this hypothesis “N”, for “Natural”. The question is then whether the data that fine-tuning holds (FN), supports the God hypothesis (G) or naturalism (N). The real question here is whether the data is more likely under G or N.

I think Barnes confuses fine-tuning with a slightly but importantly different mathematical fact. This fact is that in the space of all possible natural (Lagrangian) universes, the ones bearing life are exceedingly rare. This is because life, as we know it, is a very complex phenomena, and its evolution even more so. In order to “build” such a thing from the very simple, local, uniform building blocks that a Lagrangian provides, you need to get things just right. Thus, the Lagrangians that support life are very sparsely distributed among all possible Lagrangians, and even small deviations from them (changing one constant by a bit) will mean a universe that isn’t life-bearing. (At least, that seems to be plausible; there is no way to actually calculate any of that.) Notice that this is a logical fact about the nature of Lagrangians (i.e. of natural hypothetical universes). It makes no sense asking what is the likelihood that we will observe it or what is the likelihood of something given it, just like it makes no sense to ask what is the likelihood that we will observe “1+1=2” or to ask what is the likelihood of something “given” that “1+1=2” (since “1+1=2” is true regardless of what else we consider “given”).

Now, what Carrier essentially argues is that we should be very careful to distinguish the finding that there is Life (let’s call it “L”) from the finding that there is fine-tuning (FT). He rightly claims, and Barnes agrees, that given that there is life in the universe, and given that naturalism holds, the probability that we will find fine-tuning is 1; P(FT|L,N)=1. This is because the few hypothetical Lagrangians that do support life are fine-tuned. In contrast, given that there is life and that the God hypothesis is true, the probability of fine-tuning is lower than 1, since God could have created life without fine-tuning; P(FT|L,G)<1. It follows from this that the evidence of fine-tuning supports atheism – the fact that we find ourselves in a fine-tuned universe lowers the probability of God. I think in this Carrier is right.

Theists in contrast often argue that if we just consider fine-tuning on its own, then it is more likely under theism than under atheism. This is because the probability of fine-tuning given atheism is very low, since the probability of life under atheism is very low, since most Lagrangians don’t support life; P(FT|N) is low. In contrast, the probability of fine-tuning under God is supposedly fairly high, since God wants to create life and he might as well do it with uniform laws; so P(FT|G) is high since P(L|G)=1.

This argument is problematic in that fine-tuning is a separate fact from life, and is only relevant in those universes that have life. So we can’t just write P(FT|N). We have to take each piece of data on its own to maintain clarity. We have to write P(FT|L,N) – and similarly P(FT|L,G). And Carrier is still right – the new data FN is certain under naturalism, so that P(FT|L,N)=P(L|N), whereas it is less than certain under the God hypothesis so that P(FT|L,G)<P(L|G), so that the new information FT actually lowers the probability of the God hypothesis.

Now, this isn’t quite Barnes’ argument. Barnes instead essentially argues that since life is rare within the space of all natural (Lagrangian), the fact that we find it in our universe indicates that the process that chose which Lagrangian to instantiate was highly-biased towards choosing life-bearing Lagrangians. Implicitly, of course, this implies God chose which Lagrangian to instantiate.

Note that this amounts to what I will call the “argument from life”, namely that life is much more likely under God than under naturalism; P(L|G)=1 whereas P(L|N) is very small. And this is exactly the same place where the more usual theist argument leaves us – having established that Carrier is right that the finding that our universe is fine-tuned (FT|L) supports N, we are still left with the question of whether L does. So – how can the atheist reply to the argument from life? Well, he has two replies to this.

First, one can note that the specific God hypothesis the theist is working with is already carefully selected to fit the data that there is life. There are lots of other gods we can think of, that won’t create life. So the fact that P(L|G)=1 isn’t really saying much. To be fair, we should really consider all possible gods, and there is really no way to calculate the likelihood of life under that theory but it stands to reason it would be very low too. Or, if we decide to limit ourselves to just the life-permitting gods, then we might as well limit ourselves just to the life-permitting natural universes, and then P(L|N)=1 too.

In Barnes’ variant of the argument, this amounts to saying that even though a natural Lagrangian-selecting process that chooses a life-bearing Lagrangian seems unlikely, a divine ones that does so is also unlikely. (Technically, the atheist here doesn’t accept that there is a process that chooses the Lagrangian; rather, there simply is a particular Lagrangian. So what Barnes’ really shows is that if you believe in Naturalism is that life is surprising (assuming that Lagrangian space is indeed sparse as is assumed); and the atheist replies that it’s surprising if you believe in God, too.)

This objection is closely related to the fact that one can’t really do rational probabilistic analysis unless one knows beforehand how to divide the landscape of possibilities. The answers you get from a probabilistic analysis, especially one involving infinities such as the values of the constants in the Lagrangians or the possible types of deities, will depend on how you divide the infinite range of possibilities up. This is part of the reason why I said above that we can’t really calculate how common are life-bearing naturalistic universes among all naturalistic universes.

Secondly, one can object to Barnes’ (or the more usual) argument by declining Barnes’ characterization of naturalism. I said above he effectively defines it as maintaining that there is one Lagrangian – implying that there is one uniform, local, simple set of laws of nature. But quantum physics seems to suggest otherwise. A big part of our understanding of the laws of nature that we have involves the idea that some of the “constants” in our laws didn’t start that way, but rather had a range of possible values and “froze” at the values we see (this is called “spontaneous symmetry breaking”). This occurs in a quantum theory, and one of the leading interpretations of quantum theory – the leading one in quantum cosmology, I think; this is the Many World Interpretation – is that whenever there are multiple possibilities, all of them are realized, each in a separate parallel universe. Thus, instead of reality consisting of the laws of nature we have in our universe, with their current values of the constants, contemporary physics suggests that reality actually consists of a multiverse with numerous parallel universes, each with their own “constants” of nature.

This is hardly well-established science; it’s just an interpretation of current science (although one I tend to believe in, for reasons unrelated to the fine-tuning argument). If one adopts something like this view, then, one is led to define naturalism not as there existing one Lagrangian but rather a plethora of Lagrangians describing parallel universes, perhaps even an infinite variety of all possible Lagrangians. In such a multiverse, the probability of there being a Lagrangian universe with life in it is 1; P(L|N)=1.

We have therefore reached the stage where both under naturalism (in the multiverse sense) and under theism the probability of life is 1; so the argument from life fails.

Now the question becomes – which is more likely, the multiverse or God? That’s yet another argument to be had, but I’ll simply note that I think the multiverse is strongly suggested by well-established physics, whereas God is a childish, anthropomorphic (in the “mind of a human”, not “body of a human”, sense), metaphysically incoherent (when the so-called “theologian’s God” is meant), and is in short a highly unlikely hypothesis. At any rate, this question bears little relation to the question of whether fine-tuning implies that God exists – which, as I argued above, it does not.

On Morality

Morality. It’s lots of things.

What is the moral choice? What is the right thing to do? What is just? What is good, and what is evil?

I think those questions are problematic. The problem is that they assume that there is one answer, one meaning to “good” and other moral terms. The truth is more nuanced.

Assuming we want to be rational, there is only one “code” of behavior that should really interest us – the code that furthers our desires. Rationality obliges us to act to further our will to the extent we can. Doing so isn’t good, nor is it bad – it’s just rational. To prefer some other code – that’s irrational.

People will try to sell you other codes. They will say, for example, that the moral viewpoint is the objective one, and preach to serve the common good, to transcend your petty personal desires and consider others’ wellbeing equally. Not because that is what you want, but because that is “right”. But why should you be interested in this “right” code? If you want to consider everyone equally, by all means do so – but if you don’t want to do that, why should it matter to you that you are not being “objective”? If it doesn’t matter to you, if you have no will to act out of such an “objective” viewpoint – then such “objectivity” is irrelevant to you. Demanding that it will matter to you even though it doesn’t matter to you – that is irrational.

A common mistake in moral thinking is that there exists some “absolute” moral code, or that morality is established by the will or commands of God. But even if God exists, his will and commandments shouldn’t interesting to us in of themselves; these things will only matter to us if we have the desire to follow them. Similarly, any abstract “absolute” code is meaningful to us only to the extent that it reflects our personal desires.

Of course, a large part of our desires is exactly the kind of desires that I allegedly opposed in the previous paragraphs – desires about absolute justice, empathy to the suffering of others and the will to relieve their suffering, and so on. That’s all nice and dandy, but it doesn’t change the fact that the foundation for your personal morality is still your personal desires – even if these include such altruistic desires.

For this reason, questions like the ones I opened with have no single answer. Different people have different desires and mental structures. This one has a lot of empathy and the other little; this has a highly developed sense of justice and this a highly developed sense of honor; and so on. Advice that will suit one will therefore not suit another. It isn’t possible to provide useful answers, answers that one will be wise to heed, without taking into account the variety of humanity.

Nevertheless, there are also similarities. People are still people, and share the same coarse mental structure, despite their differences. For this reason, it is possible to give tools that will allow each person to consider the ramifications of his choices based on the basic moral instincts he has, and even to offer general guidelines to balance and reconcile his different moral intuitions. This isn’t “one answer”. It’s a body of answers, that still leaves the key task of weighing and making the moral choice at the hand of each person. You cannot read off the answers at some place – you have to find the answers that suit you individually.

The first wisdom, therefore, is self-awareness. A person has to come to know himself, his desires, better. But this is not the end of the moral work, for our desires are not set in stone. We can modify them in various ways. Learning history, anthropology, evolution, and other sciences – as well as literature – allow a person to expand his horizons and adopt values that he would never have considered before. Trying to think rationally about your moral preferences, by weighing moral dilemmas and theories and discussing them, also allows one to gradually shift these moral preferences. And a range of psychological activities and techniques can allow one to consciously and delibrately alter his habits, character, and eventually his most basic emotional responses and moral values. Self awareness is the easy part – self growth, which is the real moral and “spiritual” adulthood, is far more difficult.

All of this was concerned with our inner lives. But a large part of our will concerns the rest of the world, so an understanding of the world is vital for moral thought. It is here that the disputes between the religious and secular are the most pressing, since their worldviews are so different. If you believe that the world stands on the learning of the Torah, you moral conclusions will be very difficult from those of the atheist that thinks “learning Torah” is a sheer waste of time. When the Ultra-Orthodox Jews want to increase Israel’s funding for learning the Torah at the expense of, say, healthcare – they are behaving rationally. They’re just wrong about the nature of the world.

Studying the world and the ramifications of different choices isn’t easy either. Different choices, especially at the social and economic levels, can have highly non-trivial ramifications. In some sense, investigating these ramifications is easier since these are objective subjects, that are investigated by entire fields of science – as opposed to your own moral character and desires, which require personal work. But understanding fully the range of sciences and areas needed to form a well-founded opinion, in any major social, political, or economic choice, is so difficult it’s practically impossible. All that we can do is to try to improve our personal knowledge and understanding, in an attempt (that can never be achieved) to arrive at truth.

There is another major difference here between the modern-scientific viewpoint and the traditional-religious position. The religious are certain that someone – God in principle, and the great religious leaders in practice – already has the right answers. Modern man knows that no one knows that truth, and that he cannot find it based on authority. He has to strive on himself, by himself, to find the answers that are relevant to him. This is much more difficult, but is part and parcel of the mental maturity that is entailed in the concept of Enlightenment.

Sociological breakup of basic moral intuitions.


I’ve been speaking of morality for a while now, but how can we separate the moral sphere from the rest of life? Arbitrarily. Names aren’t important. What’s important is for us to understand the ramifications of the desires we are discussing. Do we want to forbid some actions? Certainly – we want to forbid rape or theft, for example. Do we want to allow some actions, even though we prefer people won’t do it? Certainly – we want to allow people to pray for false gods, for example, even though they’re wrong and lead others into error. This is a key difference, that has meaning in our public lives. Whether want want to call what we want to impose or obligate as “morality”, or perhaps what we want to condemn or condone, or so on – that isn’t an important difference. It’s just a choice of words.

Still – what is included in the moral sphere? Well, our most basic moral intuitions engage in several kinds of moral judgment. It is important to keep them apart, otherwise one can make embarrassing mistakes such as claiming that a choice that leads to greater suffering is therefore the immortal choice.

The first level is the level of consequences. We judge a certain state as good or bad according to its content, and therefore judge the right choice by the state it leads to. If choosing option A will leads to great suffering while choice B will alleviate great suffering, one should choose option A.

The things we value about a state of affairs are varied. We value suffering and happiness, but also freedom, truth, justice, standard of living, and so on. Generally, one can call what we value “human prosperity” or “good”. Different people will value different things, but internal reflection and historical awareness generally leads people to agree to a fairly specific set of values. This set explicitly rejects certain emotions. For example, disgust is a personal feeling and thus cannot serve as the basis for a moral decision; the fact that you find homosexual sex, or S&M sex, or eating crabs, as revolting doesn’t give you any good reason to forbid someone else from engaging in these acts. Similarly, enlightened morality rejects almost completely desires that are based on group loyalty when these conflict with universal principles such as justice. Thus, for example, it would be immortal to favor your group at the expense of others.

Oh, yes – justice. A sense of justice is accepted as a legitimate basis of morality. I speak hear of procedural justice, that is on justice that is based on equal opportunity and treatment, that rejects discrimination on the basis of irrelevant criteria. A person that isn’t accepted to a high-tech job because he is black is being discriminated, but a white actor that isn’t accepted to play the role of a black person on a film isn’t being discriminated against – being black is part of the inherent requirements of the job.

Another foundation of accepted human morality is empathy. Suffering must be alleviated, and prosperity and happiness promoted. Thus, while justice alone says that we should not aid a person that chooses to live in poverty, compassion for him and his family requires that we provide them with some minimum standard of living, if possible.

Another foundation is positive freedom. This is the mental and practical freedom of a person to do things. Discussions of freedom often focus on releasing people from prohibitions, but this is only a partial view of freedom. No one forbade a medieval European from flying to America, perhaps, but such “freedom” is vacuous since he could not do it or even conceive of the option of doing it. Our actual freedom to fly to foreign countries is both our ability to do so, and our awareness of this option. This has moral significance, as it increases the wealth of our desires as well as our abilities to manifest them.

Another aspect is Truth and the awareness of people to it. Truth is counted by most as a good onto itself, that is as something worth having for what it is regardless of any useful applications of it. Clearly, truth is often also very useful, but it is a Good thing regardless of this fact and thus forms a part of human flourishing. People that are in owe of the horseshoe neblula, for example, are at a higher level in this respect than people that think the milky way is the remains of a celestial cow. And while every truth may be valuable, we particularly value cosmic truths and truths relating to other moral principles – such as the human state in general.

One can think of other constituents of morality, such as the presence of love or integrity. But it is perhaps worthwhile to stop at this point to emphasize again the problematic nature of balancing and weighing the different factors. There is no formula that will tell us how much poverty should we accept in return to how much economic growth of the rest of the population. There is no objective way to balance the suffering that exploiting the environment will bring to the next generations against the happiness that it yields now. Balancing our different desires is ultimately a subjective exerciser, and we must balance them as best we understand our values and the world.

Which brings me to the next level of moral judgments, which is the level of personal deeds. We don’t want to demand moral perfection from people, as by their nature they are limited in their capacity and understanding. Instead, we demand good intent. If a person earnestly acted out of a desire to increase human prosperity, with due diligence – any failure on his part to do so isn’t his “fault” and is not a moral failure. For example, if a driver deviated from its path in order to not hit a pedestrian but, as it turned out, this pedestrian was a terrorist that proceeded to kill dozens of people – their deaths are not the driver’s fault, and his decision not to run over the pedestrian was the right one given the information he had at the time.

Let us dwell for a moment on the concept of “moral failure” invoked here. How can someone fail morally? One sense is that he deviates considerably from the moral consensus of the developed and self-aware. Although people are different, nearly all agree that murder for example is wrong so that a murderer is failing to act according to the enlighteend and objective (in the sense of “shared to all viewers”) mortal consensus. Another sense of being “wrong” is that the murderer is most likely normal himself, and thus he fails in that murdering is not something that he would himself want himself to do, if he would have given the matter proper and serious thought.

Thus another aspect of judging the act is judging the emotions and desires that motivate it. If a person acts out of love we would perhaps want to say he acted “morally”. Or maybe we want to reserve saying he acted “morally” if he acted out of a desire to further human prospoerity. Or so on. Again, the label “moral” is less important here; what’s important is that we consider whether we approve of choosing on this basis and under what conditions, whether we want to forbid or allow such choices, to encourage or discourage them, and so on.

This basic moral intuition can stand in contrast to the previous, consequentialist, intuition. It may be, for example, that in the cold cost-benefit analysis of human prosperity the parents of a retarded child would be wise to kill their child by exposure; but even if we accept this questionable calculus, we could still judge such an act harshly as a horrid lack of love and even basic human decency.

Another important aspect of judging the act lies in distincitons such as whether we want to forbid it. We are here thinking in terms of rights and obligations, in which “immoral” can mean something like “violates a person’s human rights”. This is a third basic moral intuition, that is sometimes opposed to both the consequentialist and the value (which value or desire stand behind the act) intuitions. For example, if a person has a choice of whether to kill three people or one, he should, says the consequentialist, choose one. But if a doctor can murder a random person and harvest his organs to save three others – we would say he should not do that. Even though both choices have the same consequences, there is something morally admissable about the first choice and inadmissable about the second. The difference lies in the distinction that a doctor does not have the right to take the lives of another, whereas in the first example the person had to take the lives of another and the only question was whether to take the lives of one or three.

Again, balancing these three general approaches – consequentialism, values, and rights – is something each person has to do on his own. Many philosophers try to base all of morality on one of these approaches, but I think this is a mistake in moral thinking. All three intuitions are basic components of the human psyche, that lead to contradicting wills. Balancing and choosing between them has to be done by each person on his own, not by philosophy or pure reason.

Science helps us understand ourselves.

So where does all this leave us? Not very well off. The greatness of Western society is that its the first human society that dared to say outright that it doesn’t know. And part of this lack of knowledge is in the field of morality. We don’t really know yet what we know and how to achieve it. It’s not that the West doesn’t present answers – on the contrary, there is as I described a fairly wide agreement on the principles, nature, and even the general content of morality. But these answers are not particularly hopeful.

Morality is a most difficult field. Our greater scientific understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe, and the philosophical formalization of out basic intuitions and their contemplation, allows the enlightened Western man to discover and shape his moral desires better than our ancestors could, and lead to the liberal morality that I briefly sketched above. But person progress is still difficult, self awareness is fuzzy and hard to reach, decision on balancing different values are painful, and understanding the consequences of our choices for complex systems such as human society is often nearly impossible. Morality is difficult. C’est la vie.

On Scholastic Metaphysics: Feser vs. Scientism

This post is part of a series on Edward’s Feser’s book “Scholastic Metaphysics”.

scientsimidolFeser’s book opens [1] with an excellent attack on “scientism”, which he defines [2] to mean that “the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything”. I think his critique of scientism is very good, but that Feser needlessly limits himself to this extreme definition. His critique actually cuts deeper.

Feser begins by simply noting that this position is self-contradicting since it itself is not a scientific claim. This is a valid point against his extreme definition of scientism, but let’s abandon it and consider instead a milder scientism, that agrees that pure reasoning can also establish knowledge, such as in mathematics and epistemology – (mild) scientism will then be a philosophical truth, established by pure reason.

What’s important about Feser’s argument is that his arguments focus on invoking the limits of science . Feser writes,

“…scientific inquiry rests on a number of philosophical assumptions: the assumption that there is an objective world external to the minds of scientists; the assumption that this world is governed by regularities of the sort that might be captured in scientific laws; the assumption that the human intellect and perceptual apparatus can uncover and accurately describe these regularities; and so forth. Since scientific method presupposes these things, it cannot attempt to justify them without arguing in a circle. … There is also the question of how to interpret what science tells us about the world. For example, is the world fundamentally comprised of substances or events? What is it to be a “cause”? What is the nature of the universals referred to in scientific laws – concepts like quark, electron, atom, and so on? Do they exist over and above the particular things that instantiate them? Do scientific theories really give us a description of objective reality in the first place or are they just useful tools for predicting the course of experience? … science depends upon philosophy both to justify its presuppositions and to interpret its results” (p. 10-11)

He later notes further limits of science:

“the “laws of nature” in terms of which science explains phenomena cannot in principle provide an ultimate explanation of reality. …since the ultimate laws of nature presuppose the existence of the physical universe, they cannot intelligibly be appealed to as a way of explaining the existence of the universe.” (p. 18-19)

You don’t have to believe in Feser’s extreme definition of scientism in order to acknowledge these truths. Feser is indeed entirely correct. Science does depend on philosophy.

Now scientism is widely argued against, but it isn’t because its advocates adopt the extreme stance. Rather, “scientism” is in practice the position that philosophy can do less than the philosophers, artists, humanities professors and so on claim, and science can do much more than they suppose. Feser’s critique of scientism is important because it shows just how widely philosophy is required, even for advocates of scientism. Only philosophy can clarify and justify the presuppositions of science or the scientific method itself, ponder the interpretation of scientific theories, or, perhaps, provide ultimate explanations.

There is still a lot to argue about, however, regarding the balance of power between science and philosophy. Feser maintains that philosophy can provide us with the right underlying metaphysics, that “we can know a fair amount about the existence and nature of God through reason alone”, and presumably also use it to establish knowledge in other fields, such as ethics. Advocates of scientism usually maintain instead that philosophy can generally say nothing about the external world (god included), and that some fields that are supposedly “not scientific”, like ethics, actually are.

This argument cannot be decided at a glance. One needs to actually look at the arguments of the Scholastics, to see if for example they can indeed establish something about the world – and that’s what Feser’s book is all about. So it’s very fitting that Feser opens his book with this issue.

The Bad

Feser doesn’t quite present the above argument against scientism, however. Instead, he errs in putting forward a series of arguments against scientism which are, ehm, not very successful.

Feser’s first major argument against scientism is that extreme scientism is false because either its advocate should accept that philosophy is great too, in which case extreme scientism is simply wrong, or else he should redefine “philosophy” to be part of “science”, which makes extreme scientism pointless. But in both options, what Feser effectively arrives at is not a denial of all forms of scientism, but rather a mild scientism: knowledge can be obtained by both evidence-based reasoning (inductive reasoning, science), and pure reasoning (logic, philosophy). To move forward, to show that mild scientism is wrong, Feser will need to show that there are yet further ways of knowledge (divine revelation, perhaps?), or that philosophy can establish a lot regarding e.g. god, or that science can establish little beyond the traditional “scientific” fields.

Unfortunately, Feser’s attack on scientism mostly tries the latter approach, by putting “limits” on science. He makes some good points, but overall most of his “limits” do not apply. Take, for example, the idea that science has to presuppose that there is an objective world, external to the mind of scientists. Why must we accept that as a presupposition? Why can’t we accept it, and judge its merit, as a theory?

Feser’s second major argument against scientism is that the qualitative properties by which we perceive the world – color, the feeling of heat, and so on – cannot be captured by science. Science attempts to reduce them to quantitative underlying properties, such as the frequencies of light waves or the temperature of molecules. But that, says Feser, is simply selection-bias. Science fails to find color because it cannot measure color, so it measures frequencies and calls it color. “It would be ludicrous”, claims Feser, “to suggest that if the description physics gives us of the world does not make reference to some feature familiar to us in ordinary experience, then it follows that the feature in question doesn’t exist.”

But why should we believe our folk concepts exist? The burden of proof is on Feser here, both because he is claiming something exists and, more importantly, because he multiplies ontological entities needlessly. We believe that the scientific model is the true underlying reason for our qualitative experiences because of evidence-based reasoning, because the scientific description accounts so well for the myriad aspects of our experiences.  To believe, that on top of that something “qualitative” exists that makes no further difference – that is ludicrous. For example: to believe that on top of the existence of light rays in various frequencies (the existence of which Feser presumably accepts) there is also “color”, which exists in the light rays apart from their frequencies, simply because our unlearned folk conceptions and our perceptions see color instead of frequencies – that is ludicrous. It’s not evidence-based reasoning, nor pure reason – it’s just irrational thinking.

Now Feser further claims (p. 16) that denying that our qualitative conscious experiences really exist is incoherent because we base our science precisely on evaluating these same experiences. But we naturalists never deny the existence of said experiences, we just reduce them to things like underlying brain states. The pressure in the gas canister exists very much, even if it’s just a statistical property of the gas molecules rather than an independently existing property of the gas. So does the apple exist, and so does its red color, and so too the perception of this color in the brain – on the basis of which and similar perceptions we base our science. There is no incoherence here.

Feser’s third major argument is that laws of nature, and hence science, cannot provide ultimate explanations. I agree with that (we’ll perhaps get to deal with laws of nature in more depth later in the series, and I’ll explain why). But then Feser goes on to say,

“Nor will it do to suggest that ultimate explanation is not to be had anyway, so that science cannot be faulted for failing to provide it. For one thing, this is itself a philosophical claim rather than a scientific one. For another, the claim is false, as we will see later in this book when discussing the principle of sufficient reason.” (p. 20-21)

Well, it is a philosophical claim, but the claim is true. We will perhaps see that later in this series, when we’ll discuss the principle of sufficient reason. Until then, I’ll say only that mild scientism isn’t threatened by the idea that philosophy can find an ultimate explanation, but that in practice I don’t believe that it can.

Feser’s fourth argument against scientism is that the principal reason for adopting it, the success of science, is not convincing. Certainly, the success of science shows that it can acquire knowledge about the qualitative things it measures and tests. But “it simply doesn’t follow that there are no other aspects of the natural world”.

I’ve already noted above that the burden is on Feser – if he wants to claim there are other aspects to the natural world, he needs to show it. But more importantly – that’s not the main argument for accepting scientism, not precisely. Even putting aside arguments from pure reason,  – it isn’t just that science is successful, but that it’s exhaustive. We believe that there are no other aspects of the natural world because there does not appear to be any room left for them. The physics we have seems to explain how we see, say, perfectly. Oh, our explanation of color vision is not truly complete. But it’s so full and elaborate, and coincides so well with all the other things that the same physics explains, and our experiments so lack any other effect that seems to imply that some other feature of reality is, even occasionally, influencing events here – that it is just implausible that we’re missing something so fundamental here. It appears eminently more reasonable that we’ve already accounted for what exists and how it works, and whatever we’re missing will be a result of the same physics that works so well to describe everything we have understood so far.

To see that that’s the case, consider if our scientific understand was more fragmented (as it once was). Say we knew the equations of the dynamics of water, and for how light bends in matter, and so on – but had no general theory, only a hodgepodge of partial theories that failed to cover significant phenomena. Then it would make sense that there is still lots of knowledge missing, lots of elements of reality we don’t know about and that might be affecting the myriad phenomena that we don’t understand. Even if we had many centuries of extremely successful (but piecemeal) science and technology, that conclusion would still hold. In reality, of course, we are in the opposite position – we do have general theories, which are immensely successful in explaining virtually all phenomena, so that the little we don’t understand seems far more likely to be explicable in the same terms then to suddenly require something completely different.

There are many other points Feser makes in this section (section 0) that I disagree with, but I’ll finish with just one: Hume’s Fork.

“Hume’s Fork, the thesis that “all the objects of human reason or inquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, Relations of Ideas and Matters of Fact” … Now Hume’s Fork is notoriously self-refuting, since it is not itself either a conceptual truth (a matter of the “relations of ideas”) or empirically testable (a “matter of fact”).” (p. 26)

I would claim in contrast that Hume’s Fork is a conceptual truth.  To somewhat simplify our discussion, let us consider only propositions. They can be true in the logical sense, where a proposition is true due to the meaning of the concepts as they’re spread out by logic; and they can be true in the empirical sense, where the proposition is true because it corresponds to reality. Thus, “Rain is wet” is an empirical truth if we’ve only seen rain and now experience that the way it feels corresponds to wetness, and “Rain is wet” is a conceptual truth if the concept we have of rain already contains that it’s wet. That there are these two possible senses to the Truth of a proposition is a conceptual truth.

“there are truths – namely those of logic and mathematics – that do not plausibly fit in-to either of the two categories Hume and his naturalist descendants would, in Procrustean fashion, try to git all knowledge into. Truths of logic and mathematics have a necessity that propositions of natural science lack and an objectivity that mere “conceptual analysis”… would seem unable to guarantee” (p. 26-27)

I would claim in contrast that mathematical and logical truths are analytic, or conceptual, truths. What objectivity they have, what correspondence with reality they have, is in much the same way as other concepts. “1+1=2” seems to have “force” in the real world, when it does, because our real-world model of what “1” and “+” and so on are corresponds well to the conceptual relations between these objects. And when the pointing goes awry, when the correspondence fails, then too the result will fail – push two clouds together, and you get one cloud.

Hume’s Fork basically is mild scientism. It says that you can think things through using pure reason (philosophy, logic, mathematics), or using evidence-based reason (empiricism, science); and that’s it, there are no further “ways of knowing”. Add to that the Humean position that morality is about discovering scientific facts such as the pivotal role of empathy is human legal thinking (his position in his Principles of Morals), i.e. that ethics is a scientific field; and Hume’s general skepticism of the ability of philosophy to establish anything, especially in metaphysics – and presto, you have mild scientism in its full form. Feser is, very much, fighting Hume and his naturalist descendants. And Hume is winning.

[1] This is technically still in the Introduction, but this is where the philosophical work of the book really begins.

[2] Feser is actually using a definition lifted directly from pro-scientism philosopher Alex Rosenberg, so it’s Rosenberg’s definition rather than Feser’s. But Feser chose to address this definition, and not others.

On Scholastic Metaphysics: Me Against Aristotle


Aristotle is my greatest philosophical hero. We’re talking about the guy that took Plato’s haphazard, mystic philosophy and turned it into a down-to-earth, rigorous, systematic investigation of all aspects of reality. Aristotle is the father of nearly every field of science, and every branch of philosophy. In the few cases where I think Aristotle was right (e.g. the Correspondence Theory of Truth), I wear my Aristotelianism with pride. So you can see why I’d be sympathetic to claims that Aristotle was fundamentally right, that Modern philosophy was wrong to reject virtually everything Aristotle said.

It is thus with great hope that I purchased Edward Feser’s magnum opus, Scholastic Metaphysics. This is the (small) book that’s supposed to show all those contemporary, analytic philosophers that they’re wrong and Aristotle was right. This blog-post series will be my reading diary of this book, my attempt to grapple with Feser’s arguments. As per my education in analytic philosophy, I’m opposed to his thesis – but I approach it not with fear he might be right, but with hope that he is! I would like nothing more than to see Aristotle vindicated.

Now, I disagree with Feser about, well, just about everything. But I do hope he is right, about the core of Aristotelian thought at least. With this in mind – let us read Scholastic Metaphysics!

  1. Feser vs. Scientism