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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Beyond Belief II: Enlightenment 2.0

 
By all accounts this year's Beyond Belief symposium in San Diego was a lot less exciting than last year's [Beyond Belief II: Enlightenment 2.0]. Perhaps it's because Richard Dawkins wasn't there. On the other hand, PZ Myers was there [Speakers].

There's a short review of the highlights in this week's issue of New Scientist [Does God have a place in a rational world?]. From the sounds of it, the lack of clear-headed atheists led to some very sloppy thinking.
The first firebrand is lobbed into the audience by Edward Slingerland, an expert on ancient Chinese thought and human cognition at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. "Religion is not going away," he announced. Even those of us who fancy ourselves rationalists and scientists, he said, rely on moral values - a set of distinctly unscientific beliefs.
Oops. I've got news for you, Prof. Slingerland, you can't count yourself as a rationalist if you think that morality requires religion. And you can't lay claim to being a scientist if you think that moral values are unscientific. That's two strikes.

Where, for instance, does our conviction that human rights are universal come from? "Humans' rights to me are as mysterious as the holy trinity," he told the audience at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. "You can't do a CT scan to show where humans' rights are, you can't cut someone open and show us their human rights," he pointed out. "It's not an empirical thing, it's just something we strongly believe. It's a purely metaphysical entity."
Strike three. It's a good thing Dawkins wasn't there or this kind of sloppy thinking would have been exposed.

Who said we all have a conviction that human rights are universal? Not me, that's for sure. I can't think of a single "human right" that qualifies. Furthermore, those human rights that we generally agree upon in the 21st century are not mysterious to me. They're mostly common sense designed to maximize our ability to live in groups. It's an empirical thing—and we're still working on the best compromises between absolute rights and qualified ones.
The mood at this follow-up conference was different. Last year's event was something of an "atheist love fest" said some, who urged a more wide-ranging discourse this time round. While all present agreed that rational, evidence-based thinking should always be the basis of how we live our lives, it was also conceded that people are irrational by nature, and that faith, religion, culture and emotion must also be recognised as part of the human condition. Even the title of this year's meeting, "Beyond Belief II: Enlightenment 2.0", suggested the need for revision, reform and a little more tolerance.
Hmmm ... I guess I can go along with that. I've known for some years that people are attracted to irrationality and superstition—we call it religion. We tolerate those who ignore rationality and evidence-based thinking but that doesn't mean we shouldn't criticize those who think that way, right? Tolerance doesn't mean the same as acceptance, does it?

There's one comment in that paragraph that puzzles me. Is it true that people are irrational by nature and it's part of human nature? My observations suggest the opposite. It seems to me that most humans strive to be rational as opposed to irrational. They may get confused from time to time about what is rational and what isn't but over the centuries rationalism tends to win out over superstition. Why do we have to concede that superstition is here to stay because it's pat of the human condition. That doesn't make sense.
Such was the message from evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson of Binghamton University, New York. He suggested that humans' religious beliefs may have evolved over time, thanks to the advantages they conferred as a sort of social glue holding together groups that developed them.

Wilson was not saying religion is good or bad, simply that it has evolved to be hard-wired into our brains, and therefore cannot be ignored. "Adaptation is the gold standard against which reality must be judged," he said. "The unpredictability and unknown nature of our environment may mean that factual knowledge isn't as useful as the behaviours we have evolved to deal with this world."
Hmmm ... if irrationality and superstition are hard-wired into our brains then how come it's so easy for many of us to escape from this sort of thinking?

I often wonder whether people like Wilson have thought seriously about what they're saying. Does he imagine a time when primitive humans didn't have religion because it hadn't yet evolved? How did those groups manage to survive? I wonder what went on in their brains when they couldn't think about supernatural explanations?

Or did the religion allele(s) arise before the hominid lineage? Have chimps got religion and that's what what makes them stick together? (Instead of sex.) What about gorillas? Who do they worship? Howler monkeys? Meerkats?
Chemist Peter Atkins of the University of Oxford, one of the more hard-line atheists in the room, did not let this go unchallenged. He chided fellow participants for not being sufficiently proud about what science can accomplish. Given time and persistence, science will conquer all of nature's mysteries, he said.
I'm glad to see there was at least one rationalist present.
So can scientific and religious world views ever be reconciled? Harris, author of The End of Faith, declared that they could not, and provided an uncompromising exposition on the evils of religion.

Away from the meeting, philosopher Daniel Dennett of Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, told New Scientist that as irrational as human minds may be, calm, firm introduction of reason into the world's classrooms could over time purge them of religion.
Maybe there were more rationalists present than the author of the piece is willing to admit?


[PhotoCredits: Beyond Belief II: Enlightenment 2.0, Meerkats]

23 comments :

  1. Oops. I've got news for you, Prof. Slingerland, you can't count yourself as a rationalist if you think that morality requires religion. And you can't lay claim to being a scientist if you think that moral values are unscientific. That's two strikes.

    Those are two different things. I don't see where he is saying morality requires religion, just that it is not scientific. I'm curious to why you think morality is "scientific". Like you brought up with animal rights earlier, there's a huge emotional component involved. That's why there's arguments over the morality of things like abortion: some people emotionally identify themselves with the fetus and others with the mother with the unwanted pregnancy.

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  2. A few years ago the buzzword for indicating something where image was more important that content was "paradigm". These days it seems to have changed to calling something "2.0". I notice Nisbett and Mooney have taken to calling framing "Communicating Science 2.0". That alone should make people ignore them.

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  3. jonathan badger asks,

    I'm curious to why you think morality is "scientific".

    Because it can be explained by science. Part of that explanation involves human emotions and where those emotions come from. That's all part of science, IMHO.

    Do you think that whenever human emotions play a role it becomes non-scientific?

    This seems like a strange idea to me. Can emotions only be explained by postulating the existence of a supernatural being?

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  4. Because it can be explained by science. Part of that explanation involves human emotions and where those emotions come from. That's all part of science, IMHO.

    Like myself, you don't seem to be much of a fan of sociobiological stories, and that's generally how "where those emotions come from" are explained, so I'm a bit amused to hear you taking this strategy.

    Do you think that whenever human emotions play a role it becomes non-scientific?

    Yes. That's what "non-scientific" implies. Religion, magic, etc. all rely on trusting one's emotions over one's reason. Of course in practice it's never possible to entirely eliminate the influence of emotion even when interpreting scientific results, but ideally science is emotion free.

    This seems like a strange idea to me. Can emotions only be explained by postulating the existence of a supernatural being?

    No, and I don't see how either Slingerland or myself are suggesting such a thing.

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  5. Morality is unscientific because science is about what "is" and morality about what "ought" to be. But to say that morality is unscientific is not to demote it, it's still accessible to other types of rational inquiry, i.e. philosophy.

    Second, what do emotions have to do with ethics? I'm guessing you are not a moral realist?

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  6. What is moral is, I agree, not a scientific question, although science can often inform a debate of what is moral. However the question of WHY we are moral most certainly is a scientific issue and one that I think as been pretty much answered.

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  7. I haven't noticed it's at all easy for atheists to escape from dogmatic thinking, especially about religion. So Wilson seems spot on there.

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  8. Post-Diluvian Diaspora says,

    Morality is unscientific because science is about what "is" and morality about what "ought" to be.

    Deciding what "ought" to be is a function of the human brain and the experiences of humans. It's perfectly scientific to analyze how humans arrive at these decisions. Furthermore, I think the answer will not reveal any mystical mechanisms that are outside of science.

    Do you think the study of ant behavior is unscientific just because ants do what they think they "ought" to do?

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  9. Deciding what "ought" to be is a function of the human brain and the experiences of humans.

    You are assuming that there is a "decision" to be made. Moral realists would argue for the existence of moral facts that are independent of the human brain. Moral statements are propositions that are true or false, in the same way that statements like "the Earth is flat" is true or false. So rather than being "decided," it's more like they are "discovered."

    About ants: (1) Do ants "think"? (2) The study of behaviour can be scientific if it is descriptive, but it ceases to be so when it is normative.

    Susan Neiman talked about this in last year's Beyond Belief (session 6).

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  10. Moral realism is antiscientific and antirationsl (or prescientific and prerational if you want to be a bit more polite); it's really just a form of disguised, attenuated religion. Where in the universe are these eternal, non-human dependent "moral" standards? Just how are we supposed to find out about them? Surely not by armchair ratiocination, which is all that philosophers can do, and is an utterly invalid tool for finding out any continget facts about the real universe, whetheer those be physical facts or the alleged "moral facts".

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  11. Deciding what "ought" to be is a function of the human brain and the experiences of humans. It's perfectly scientific to analyze how humans arrive at these decisions.

    In exactly the same manner, the origins of such behaviors as religion, Nazism, and belief in alien visitation can be analyzed in a scientific manner, and the social (and perhaps genetic) factors responsible can in theory be found. That doesn't mean that any of those behaviors themselves are "scientific" though.

    Furthermore, I think the answer will not reveal any mystical mechanisms that are outside of science.

    Nobody in this conversation (nor Slingerland) is suggesting that it will, as far as I can tell.

    Do you think the study of ant behavior is unscientific just because ants do what they think they "ought" to do?

    The study of ant behavior may be scientific, but I'm pretty certain that ants don't use the scientific method to decide their behavior, nor do I think people decide "ought" questions that way.

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  12. Wilson was not saying religion is good or bad, simply that it has evolved to be hard-wired into our brains, and therefore cannot be ignored. "Adaptation is the gold standard against which reality must be judged," he said.

    Where is the evidence for that? From the very little I have read I'm not yet impressed with evolutionary psychology, its factual basis and its predictivity.

    On a more general basis, I'm impressed with how we can overcome such limitations as being hardwired modelers, up to the point that we postdict what we do and remember. Fortunately we are also hardwired to repeat successful behavior. The trick is of course to recognize irrational behavior and get rid of it.

    Moral behavior is a common trait among others, so it can't be declared to be outside science or exclusive to humans.

    Comparing it to similar traits like sexual behavior, I find it hard to see how an inner "explanation" could contribute to factual knowledge. That goes back to our insistence of postdiction, even if there is nothing "there" there.

    The failure of universal ethical principles underscores this.

    "The unpredictability and unknown nature of our environment may mean that factual knowledge isn't as useful as the behaviours we have evolved to deal with this world."

    Religion is hardly used to do snap judgments any more than science and other factual knowledge is.

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  13. I read this topic before scanning lower and seeing the article about Fox news. I thought it made an interesting juxtaposition.

    Is terrorism or supporting terrorism moral or immoral? Is there a blanket, scientifically objective understanding about the morality of terrorism? Or can science, at best, only describe how people might co-operate to support terrorism and suggest conditions in which terrorism might not get a foothold? Which should one choose: Is it the one that increases the chances of furthering one's genes in the next generation?

    Now, I don't believe for a second that one needs God for morality but I'm a bit unsure how one can make broad prohibitions with functional morality. Maybe in principle this could be done, but the actual "calculus" is certainly well beyond our current technological capabilities. So, what should we do in the meantime? Can we support moral positions that we don't know to be "true"? I ask because may of them fall into that category...

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  14. Can we support moral positions that we don't know to be "true"?

    I think that members of democratic societies have to tolerate moral positions that we don't agree with. Terrorism is out-defined as illegal, we don't need to tolerate it.

    In non-democratic societies there may be a thin line between guerrilla movements and political terrorism for all I know. That is quite another kettle of fish.

    Related to that is of course also the problem of diverse public reactions in nations invaded by others for other reasons than genocide or other forms of large scale outrageous political repression. [Hint, hint, nudge, nudge.]

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  15. "Is terrorism or supporting terrorism moral or immoral? " Be serious, there's not even any agreement on what a terrorist is, or who's a terrorist and who's a freedom fighter. (The supposedly terrorist-fighting United States currently supports a number of groups, eg. the Iranian Mujahedeen, that could easily be so labeled.) No wonder somebody who falls for simple-mined slogans also yearns for a nonexistent absolute morality.

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  16. Steve LaBonne : "No wonder somebody who falls for simple-mined slogans also yearns for a nonexistent absolute morality."

    "Somebody" who? Me or Larry? I've made no such claims or assumptions. I didn't write the post poo-pooing a broadcast news hack. You think the question of terrorism depends. OK, I agree, but on what? What are the guiding factors that influence your decisions? Can you defend them empirically and objectively? I'm not certain that is possible. What is your basis for decision and why should anyone else agree?


    Torbjörn Larsson: "I think that members of democratic societies have to tolerate moral positions that we don't agree with."

    I certainly agree with that position but the point I am making is actually different. I am asking whether one can support a moral position -- *including those of our own* -- on the basis of axioms or guiding principles that we cannot know to be true (empirically, scientifically & etc.) Admittedly, it's a leading question because I know we don't have a bone fide system of empirical, scientific morality. The fact is, we operate without proof or knowledge that our actions are right every day. Empirically speaking, at best we can suggest that under a particular set of conditions we humans tend to display a certain pattern of behaviors. But even that level understanding is only in its infancy. I agree with some of the previous comments: Science and logic can inform us of the outcomes and impact of some of our behaviors but in many cases it tells us little about the rationality or irrationality of a behavior.

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  17. "You think the question of terrorism depends. OK, I agree..." You can stop there; if it "depends", it can't be measured against some imaginary carved-in-stone moral principle.
    There's really nothing more to say.

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  18. "You can stop there; if it "depends", it can't be measured against some imaginary carved-in-stone moral principle."

    Stop where? Why? Can't one recognize that analyses often involve *multiple* principles and that their relative prioritization affects the "calculus"? You said that there isn't a universal definition for "terrorist". Fair enough. But do you find some particular acts "immoral" nonetheless? Or are you objecting to the use of the term "morality", which I also would agree is imprecisely defined in these comments? Perhaps "morality" is an illusion. I think it could be, but it's a strangely compelling way of thinking and "framing" one's social interactions.

    Just curious.

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  19. I am not interested in having a discussion here about either terrorism or moral philosophy- but huge subjects and both off-topic. I was concerned simply to show that your example of terrorism does nothing to support the idea of immutable moral principles and since you appear to recognize that fact, I really don't see where your argument is.

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  20. Science and logic can inform us of the outcomes and impact of some of our behaviors but in many cases it tells us little about the rationality or irrationality of a behavior.

    I can agree with that. But it seems to me you have answered your own question, there are no moral absolutes. Funny, because it didn't look like a rhetorical one in its context...

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  21. Torbjörn, regardless of whether there are moral absolutes, do you feel there are actions which in particular contexts are "wrong"? There could be moral absolutes but I don't think one can necessarily identify or prove them. That would make their pursuit or assigning their origins to the divine a futile exercise, IMO. But certainly the moral beliefs I hold are absolute (for me) at the time and place that I hold them, given what I know at the time, although I don't for a moment think everyone would agree with all my conclusions. How about "subjective moral absolutes"? Everyone else but myself could be wrong? :^)


    I guess the point I'm try to reach is that one's concept of morality is based at least partly on beliefs (dare one say "faith", perhaps not in the divine but in one's limited comprehension?). Moral feeling certainly has a biological component but the systematic construction of a moral system (such as what leads to things like laws and codified social interactions), has components of which science does not inform terribly well. Thus I don't think one can properly call morality "scientific" (pace jonathan badger).

    I suspect we're pretty much on the same page so perhaps I'm beating a dead horse.

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  22. UR:

    I'm not sure I'm helpful, but FWIW:

    In a general sense I see morals as conventional among members of groups, with some individual variation. This is how kinship strategies works, but at the same time you can see loners act differently.

    But I think you really want to ask, is there boundaries over which we shouldn't step? (Murder, genocide, et cetera.) I.e. is there "immoral" practices or even morals as I defined them?

    Yes, I think we can have qualitative differences even in subjects that are hard to judge, and is contingent on circumstances (killing in self defense). And I think we can agree on (most of) them and codify them in laws, rights, et cetera.

    I am less optimistic about consistent "theories" (ethical theories) that decides them. That "top-down" approach seems misguided to me compared to the "bottom-up" approach to find out what we actually (want to) do.

    But I'm not a moral or ethical expert, this is my current analysis, subject to change without due notice. :-P

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  23. Torbjörn, I agree with everything your wrote. At some point situations get a bit complicated and we try to be analytical about how we should act. At least, that seems like a good place to start and may provide some consistency. So, we try to codify basic opinions ("axioms") into moral, ethical and legal systems. But mapping logic to these core ideas is difficult probably because the subject isn't entirely consistent or sufficiently described to do so.

    Working from the bottom-up provides the ultimate test of any system (moral or scientific) and it's important to know the actual "terrain" to which moral theories must map (Yes, I'm cross-breeding metaphors all over the place). But bottom-up explanations tend to lack future predictability or structure. So it's natural to try creating top-down theories. I think there are some situations where this works, particularly in the legal arena, but like most theories, they tend to show problems toward the extremes. Some sooner than others.

    "But I'm not a moral or ethical expert, this is my current analysis, subject to change without due notice."

    I'm not one either. From what I've read over the years I get the impression with moral philosophy that the authors tend to reach the conclusions that they pretty much wanted to get in the first place. But you can't miss the gaps if you look hard enough. It seems to me that a lot of their efforts are spent trying to disguise the holes. Odd... Or perhaps just human nature.

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