Posts Tagged ‘Dan Dennett’

Good and Evil

April 10, 2012

“There may be nothing more important than human cooperation.” So begins Sam Harris’s second chapter in Moral LandscapeEthics is all about devising the rules, habits, and practices that will optimize cooperation built on

kindness, reciprocity, trust, openness to argument, respect for evidence, intuitions of fairness, impulse control, the mitigation of aggression…

But does that mean science can really determine our values? It’s going to be important to clarify not only what he means by science, but what he means by “determine” too. Probably nothing so rigid as his critics will suppose. He’s just looking for guidelines and broad parameters at the terrain’s edge. He seems committed to pluralism.

Our genes may be “selfish” but our societies need to be collaborative  and our instincts need to be trained for altruism and fellow-feeling. David Hume knew that, sharing a strange finger fetish with his pal Adam Smith. Hume, I never tire of telling my Intro students, said it “would not be against reason to prefer the destruction of half the world to the pricking of [my] little finger.”

Smith echoed the thought, imagining a “man of humanity” in Europe who’d lose sleep over his finger but not over the poor victims of an earthquake in China. But sleep aside, he presumably wouldn’t choose to sacrifice them for his own comfort. “But what makes this difference?” Empathy, sentiment, mutual care and concern, the suppression of selfishness. And reason? Yes, but not “pure” or narrow reason. The sentiments can be educated, emotions can be intelligent and self-correcting.

Is Sam speaking ironically when he invokes “an angel of beneficence” to account for the desire most of us feel for justice, fairness, and progress? No, he’s just being literary and Lincolnesque.

The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature. 1st inaugural, March 1861

He’s also declaring his moral realism and consequentialism. “Without potential consequences at the level of experience- happiness, suffering, joy, despair- all talk of value is empty.” Our “oughts” reflect of the facts of life, and the “maximizing of well-being in this world.” But the facts aren’t all in, and they’re not all self-evident.  The conversation must continue.

Our assessment of consequences in the moral domain must proceed as it does in all others: under the shadow of uncertainty, guided by theory, data, and honest conversation. The fact that it may often be difficult, or even impossible to know what the consequences of our thoughts and actions will be does not mean that there is some other basis for human values that is worth worrying about.

Jonathan Haidt, whose recent and compelling TED Talk does not quite persuade that liberals and conservatives are correspondingly blind to one another’s legitimate commitments, thinks we make moral decisions on the basis of relatively un-reasoned emotion which we rationalize after the fact. [His 2008 TED Talk on “moral roots” advanced the same thesis.]

Our differences in politics and religion, Haidt argues, tend to reflect temperamental biases and habitual preferences more than any deep truths about the world. It’s not that one side is right and the other wrong, but that liberals fixated on fairness and justice are incapable of acknowledging conservatives’ loyalty and respect for authority (and vice versa). Each side possesses its own slice of rectitude, but neither can see the other.

But Sam finds this all too relativistic. “Many people are simply wrong about morality,” social conservatives are often hypocritical (“louche”), and many probably suffer damaged medial prefrontal cortexes that prevent their knowing how “to behave appropriately toward others.”

They probably don’t know how to resolve the trolley problem either. [YouTPhilosophyExperiments]

And then there are the psychopaths. I had to shower after reading about them on p. 96. Sam apparently has immersed himself in this literature and assures us it’s a lot worse. I’m taking his word for it.

The chapter concludes with a chunk on free will, which Sam considers (as a good neuroscientist should, apparently) an illusion. “Science has a problem with free will,” Richard Dawkins’ Oxford successor explains.

So we’re all just damned lucky not to have drawn the psychopath cards (genes, memes).  (But I think Sam made a free choice to spin this section out into a more lucrative ebook.)

It means nothing to say that a person would have done otherwise had he chosen to do otherwise, because a person’s “choices” merely appear in his mental stream as though sprung from the void… you are not more responsible for the next thing you think (and therefore do) than you are for the fact that you were born into this world.

Some of us may find this view comforting, terrifying, or even irrelevant. I’d just like Sam to address the two uneasily-yoked Jamesian views: one, that our bodies often (always?) do in fact get out in front of our conscious wills and precede them into action; and two, that we nonetheless retain a capacity for directed attention that secures the frame of mind we’re free to think of as our free wills. Sam speaks of attention at chapter’s end, but not quite in James’s sense.

Our sense of our own freedom results from our not paying attention to what it is actually like to be what we are. The moment we do pay attention, we begin to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our subjectivity is perfectly compatible with this truth.

James on percpetion, emotion, and consciousness:

My theory … is that the bodily changes follow directly the perception of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur is the emotion. Common sense says, we lose our fortune, are sorry and weep; we meet a bear, are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival, are angry and strike. The hypothesis here to be defended says that this order of sequence is incorrect … and that the more rational statement is that we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble … Without the bodily states following on the perception, the latter would be purely cognitive in form, pale, colorless, destitute of emotional warmth. We might then see the bear, and judge it best to run, receive the insult and deem it right to strike, but we should not actually feel afraid or angry.

James on attention:

Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought…It implies withdrawl from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state. [WJ’s 1870 diary entry on Renouvier, attention, & free will]

But these questions, fascinating though they are to those of us who are fascinated by them, are peripheral to the central claim of chapter two: we humans are capable of doing just about everything on the spectrum between good and evil. We’re also capable of learning more about the conditions (including brain-states) under which these behaviors are most likely to be expressed, and of acting to improve the net ratio of well-being. We may be determined, but so long as we can act intelligently we’re not fated or doomed. As Dan Dennett says: freedom evolves. [Dennett at CalTech]

We can understand how our freedom is greater than that of other creatures, and see how this heightened capacity carries moral implications: noblesse oblige. We are in the best position to decide what to do next, because we have the broadest knowledge and hence the best perspective on the future. What that future holds in store for our planet is up to all of us, reasoning together.

And really, is Sam finally wanting to say anything different? The conversation continues.


November 3, 2010

No, my post title is not about the election results. So far as I can tell, the sky did not fall yesterday. Jon Stewart said recently that “we’ll be fine,” and I’m holding him to that.

Today we have reports from Harrison and Kayla (and ?), and we continue to explore the ways in which we are not gadgets.

But first: Kelley’s report yesterday on Zombies seems relevant here. “Zombies are exactly like us in all physical respects but have no conscious experiences.” They’re not evil, they’re misunderstood, like the undead in general. Like us all.

Lanier is sure he’s conscious, and that other authors and artists and creative people are too. He’s not sure present trends favors conscious artistry, though.  If we stop respecting the mental autonomy and independence of our most creative peers, they’ll suffer and we’ll be deprived of their best efforts. Wake up, says Lanier, before it’s too late.

And, he gets off a wicked shot at those philosophers who seem to undervalue the meaning and importance of individual consciousness. “Zombies can only be detected if they happen to be professional philospohers. Daniel Dennett is obviously a zombie.” Ouch. But Dennett and Lanier should find common ground on the point that we don’t really understand our own consciousness very well. All the more reason not to rush into a hasty marriage to our machines.

Jaron Lanier is concerned with the future of money. How will people make a living with their hearts and heads, as the machines continue to evolve? The Open Source culture has become, for many, a “free culture” of downloadable music, online videos, and other cultural commodities increasingly available and on tap for the discerning consumer. What becomes of creativity when people expect you to give it away? Won’t they become detached from their own creations, alienated from their intellectual and artistic labor?  Won’t that have a chilling affect on art and inspiration? Won’t it result in bad art, uninspired and stagnant culture, and species arrest?

Digital Maoists, cybernetic totalists, remashers, and Web 2.0 enthusiasts generally prefer meta-level revisions of old-fashioned culture. “A mashup is more important than the sources who were mashed.” This seems exactly backwards, since creative originality doesn’t just fall from the Cloud but always begins in somebody’s brain – not the hive mind.  But creativity is being marginalized and downgraded in the depleted desert of Information, on Lanier’s view, not properly rewarded. This is bad news for creative people, and for the species.

This is an echo of that Updike-Kelly debate over the future of books we talked about in September. Do artists really want to hawk t-shirts and submit to “meet the author” occasions, to pay the rent, rather than reap a fair and even generous return for their hard solitary labors? Of course not. This is America, and so can you.

This is, as I read it, a pretty *grisly scenario. “Performances, access to the creator, personalization,” whatever that is — does this not throw us back to the pre-literate societies, where only the present, live person can make an impression and offer, as it were, value? Have not writers, since the onset of the Gutenberg revolution, imagined that they already were, in their written and printed texts, giving an “access to the creator” more pointed, more shapely, more loaded with aesthetic and informational value than an unmediated, unpolished personal conversation? Has the electronic revolution pushed us so far down the path of celebrity as a summum bonum that an author’s works, be they one volume or 50, serve primarily as his or her ticket to the lecture platform, or, since even that is somewhat hierarchical and aloof, a series of one-on-one orgies of personal access?

This does sound like the end of authorship, and the wrong way to go.

We’ve not gone there, yet. Lanier recalls confident predictions from VR skeptics, two decades ago, that “only a tiny minority of people would ever write anything for others to read.” Now, it seems, just about everybody’s blogging and tweeting and status-updating etc.

Granted, a lot of that falls well short of anything we’d want to celebrate as “creative.” But there’s plenty of content coming from all quarters. Lanier’s worried about its future in a “free and open” environment where everyone is encouraged to cadge and copy and cut and paste and remix and remash…

Hence, his “epiphany”:  the human world works, to the extent that it does, because it can depend on an “ocean of good will” backed by civilized formal constraints on greed and aggression. This is somewhere between Hobbes and Rousseau. Guess you could call it Human Nature 2.0. People are just about good enough, cooperative and friendly enough, if given their space and their stuff and a fair return on investment, secured by the full faith and credit of an effective, legitimately sovereign mutual authority: your tax dollars at work.

The message: let creative people be themselves, let ’em  sell their work as they see fit, and don’t “steal this book” or anything else produced by the hearts and brains of conscious, vital, flesh-and-blood human beings.

That would be unconscionable.

NOTE to students: A reporter for the campus newspaper Sidelines is doing a story for Monday’s edition on the upcoming “Environmental Ethics and Native Wisdom” course, and wants to include some students’ perspectives.  If you’re interested in sharing, you can contact her directly:


September 1, 2010

Downloaded my free kindle sample of Jonathan Franzen‘s eagerly-awaited, critically-acclaimed new novel Freedom last night. (excerpt) (reviews) Couldn’t wait any longer for my Amazon pre-order to arrive. Dove right in, ’til I got to the part where a character is “complaining about the length of his attention span” and realized my own was drifting towards sleep. But so far, so great. (Not everyone thinks so, btw: a few female writers have been heard to grumble that Franzen’s being unduly lionized, there must be an interesting and possibly Oprah-centered back-story there. But never mind.)

I bring it up in part just because it’s a huge literary event, when a writer of Franzen’s stature weighs in with much-needed perspective on the strange form of life we’ve been living lately. (His Corrections nine years ago was brilliant in that regard.)

But I also find the theme pertinent to what we’re doing today in the Future of Life class: further discussing William James’s claim that what life eventually makes of itself, in the long run, is a “vital question for us all.” Do we live as though we really felt that? Or have we shrunk our “freedom” to a mere series of consumer product-and-lifestyle choices that have no real regard for the ultimate disposition of our species?

One early review contends that

In America what passes for freedom, or so Jonathan Franzen implies, is a refusal to accept limits, to shoulder the burdens of an inheritance… more

“The burden of an inheritance” is also the opportunity of a legacy, and that’s what Dan Dennett was getting at when he talked about what makes us a unique species, with regard to our forebears’ solicitude for our destiny… and ours for that of our progeny.

We’re free to care about the future, or not. If we care, the present expands and deepens. If we don’t, it shrinks and shallows. That’s my claim, anyway. The fundamental message here is anti-deterministic and melioristic: The future is an open country, in an open and pluralistic universe. It’s ours for the filling. The way things are is not the way they have to be. We can make it better.*

What would Edward Bellamy say? What would you?


*Some other pertinent James quotes from Pragmatism, lecture #3:

To anyone who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent the mere fact that matter COULD have taken for a time that precious form, ought to make matter sacred ever after. It makes no difference what the PRINCIPLE of life may be, material or immaterial, matter at any rate co-operates, lends itself to all life’s purposes. That beloved incarnation was among matter’s possibilities.

It makes not a single jot of difference so far as the PAST of the world goes, whether we deem it to have been the work of matter or whether we think a divine spirit was its author.

Thus if no future detail of experience or conduct is to be deduced from our hypothesis, the debate between materialism and theism becomes quite idle and insignificant. Matter and God in that event mean exactly the same thing—the power, namely, neither more nor less, that could make just this completed world—and the wise man is he who in such a case would turn his back on such a supererogatory discussion. Accordingly, most men instinctively, and positivists and scientists deliberately, do turn their backs on philosophical disputes from which nothing in the line of definite future consequences can be seen to follow. The verbal and empty character of philosophy is surely a reproach with which we are, but too familiar. If pragmatism be true, it is a perfectly sound reproach…

But philosophy is prospective also, and, after finding what the world has been and done and yielded, still asks the further question ‘what does the world PROMISE?’

Theism and materialism, so indifferent when taken retrospectively, point, when we take them prospectively, to wholly different outlooks of experience.

Darwin opened our minds to the power of chance-happenings to bring forth ‘fit’ results if only they have time to add themselves together. He showed the enormous waste of nature in producing results that get destroyed because of their unfitness.

Free-will pragmatically means NOVELTIES IN THE WORLD, the right to expect that in its deepest elements as well as in its surface phenomena, the future may not identically repeat and imitate the past.

‘Freedom’ in a world already perfect could only mean freedom to BE WORSE, and who could be so insane as to wish that? To be necessarily what it is, to be impossibly aught else, would put the last touch of perfection upon optimism’s universe. Surely the only POSSIBILITY that one can rationally claim is the possibility that things may be BETTER.

making plans

May 6, 2010

Our relationship with time really is a puzzle. Older Daughter solves it neatly when she reminds me: “the past is history, the future’s a mystery, today’s a gift. That why it’s called the present.” Says she got that from the Kung-fu panda.

There’s a lot to be said for the present-time perspective. For instance:

Once attention is shifted from the future and we begin to enjoy activities at the time we do them and for what they are, we have transcended the mentality that views life as a process of mediation toward distant ends.

That was John Lachs in Intermediate Man.

Albert Camus in The Rebel: “Real generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present.”

Wendell Berry:

We can do nothing for the human future that we will not do for the human present… [One] who works and behaves well today need take no thought for the morrow; he has discharged today’s only obligation to tomorrow.

The Devil’s Dictionary defines the future as “that period of time in which our affairs prosper, our friends are true, and our happiness is assured.” Neverland.

On the other hand, Carl Sagan: “Our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky…”

Michael Chabon:

Parents are betting on their children, and their children after them, and theirs… If you don’t believe in the future, unreservedly and dreamily… I don’t see how you can have children.

Jaron Lanier:

We have to think about the digital layers we are laying down now in order to benefit future generations. We should be optimistic that civilization  will survive this challenging century, and put some effort into creating the best possible world for those who will inherit our efforts.

Dan Dennett:

One thing that makes us unique as a species is that for the last five or ten thousand years we have been the beneficiaries of conscious planning by our parents and cultures. Today we are actively concerning ourselves with what the world is going to be like in the future. We have strong beliefs about this. They play a role in what homo sapiens is going to be like a thousand years from now.

Finally, Bill McKibben says of the climatically degraded world we’ve been carelessly combusting: “We still must live on the world we’ve created– lightly, carefully, gracefully.” That’s going to take some serious conscious planning too.


February 3, 2010

Socrates’ famous final scene, as depicted in Plato’s “Phaedo” and in Jacques-Louis David’s 1786 “Death of Socrates,” suggests a philosopher who has already moved beyond his own end, achieved his personal transcendence (trans-end-dance, as Peter Ackroyd has it, the dance of death), and is more than a bit peeved at the failure of friends and followers to check their grief. And then the pregnant last words: Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius. Was Plato a faithful scribe? Socrates hadn’t seemed to regard his life as an illness. But in any case, the hemlock did its job and the Philosopher soon was feeling no pain, forevermore. TPM bio, SEP, Trial and Death

He had tried to prepare his friends, in Apology, for a dignified exit: either death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness, or, as men say, there is a change and migration of the soul from this world to another. He did not claim any special insight into where he might be going, up or out, and thought it the mere pretense of  wisdom to waste a moment’s worry on the subject.

The high point of Socrates’ final days (from a philosopher’s POV) comes when, on his way to face his accusers, he encounters Euthyphro. Euthyphro “knows” (but has never really thought about) the meaning of piety. Socrates, in his inimitable fashion, methodically reveals the fatuousness of Euthyphro’s confidence. The take-away for me is that we must not defer to authorities, human or divine,  just because they would “command” our allegiance. We must avoid arbitrariness, apply our reason, and seek the truth.

“There is only one way to respect the substance of any purported God-given moral edict. Consider it conscientiously in the full light of reason, using all the evidence at our command. No God pleased by displays of unreasoning love is worthy of worship.” Dan Dennett

Socrates believed that virtue is the most valuable of all possessions, that the truth lies beyond the “shadows” of our everyday experience, and that it is the proper business of the philosopher to show us how little we really know. (PW) He lived and died by his principles, never wavering or flinching, never renouncing his chosen life’s-work of encouraging all to join the search for  answers to life’s basic questions. (Kind of like Guy Noire.) Most of us would like to think we’ve got an inner Socrates to call on, if we find ourselves in extremis. But it’s hard not to suspect we’ve got an inner Woody, too. In his version of “Apology” the story unfolds differently.

Alain de Botton understands: Socrates’ behavior contrasted so sharply with my own. In conversations, my priority was to be liked, rather than to speak the truth. A desire to please led me to laugh at modest jokes… I did not publicly doubt ideas to which the majority was committed. I sought the approval of figures of authority…

Philosophical integrity, cultivated through a lifetime of habitual questioning and cross-examination, made it easier for Socrates to resist the crowd and withstand their opprobrium. But Socrates’ great and simple message was that we can all do that, can learn to distinguish what is popular from what is right, and can discover the pleasures of mental freedom with the courage of our rationally-examined convictions.  How? Mainly by deciding to attend diligently to the reasons upon which we are prepared to act, questioning popular wisdom, and keeping our conversations alive. Socrates Cafe, anyone?

PW 1.1

January 25, 2010

I’ve been using this little bookPassion for Wisdom, which attempts to render the history of philosophy at a break-neck pace (128 pages… and it flies even faster in the Kindle edition), as a centerpiece (or “spine”)  in my Intro courses for many years. Last semester’s different approach was ok, but I think we’ll have better luck with Passion restored to pre-eminence. So, today we kick off our weekly Monday readings from it with a particular focus on the classic “problem of evil.”  PW 1

The monotheistic version of the question’s been around for at least 2,600 years, since the time of Zoroaster in Persia (who inspired Nietzsche’s Zarathustra): “How can God allow so much suffering and wrongdoing [from human malfeasance, natural disasters, etc.] in the world?” More non-theists attribute their inability to believe in a benevolent deity to this problem than to any other cause. As the philosopher David Hume (echoing Epicurus) put it in the 18th century: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”

The most common reply: free will. But what’s that got to do with earthquakes in Lisbon and San Francisco and Haiti? What’s it got to do with innocent children who get swept away in floods and tsunamis and tornadoes and hurricanes? Suppose you’re a kindergarten teacher, and you sit idly by while little Johnny pokes his classmates’ eyes out?  “I gave him the stick but it was his free choice to use it that way.” Not so impressive a defense, especially if you possess omniscience.

And omnipotence and moral perfection and a little common sense. Good people aren’t robots, so why couldn’t God have created only people like them, people who quite freely live good lives? As the Archbishop of York said recently of Haiti, “I have nothing to say to make sense of this horror.” That’s one bishop with more sense than Pat Robertson. (But my dog has more sense than Pat Robertson.) He knows (as does Dan Dennett) there’s no verbal solution to this problem.

This semester I’m also using another book by Solomon for the first time, in A&S: Spirituality for the Skeptic.

Coincidentally: my iPod clock radio woke me yesterday to a Philosophy Bites podcast featuring a philosopher from UNC, Marilyn Adams. She contends that optimists can only sustain their optimism by believing in some “Super-human” power capable of “making good” on all the suffering and evil that can befall humans in this life. That view didn’t look so promising to Voltaire, at least not through Leibniz‘s “best possible world” spectacles.

And there are other problems with the picture of a controlling divine over-seer whose all-seeing, all-knowing micro-management might seem less than nice to those whose personal destiny is less than the best.

Robert Solomon was an optimist, and a skeptic about super-human powers. He didn’t agree with Professor Adams at all, as we’ll discuss.

When I think of Solomon, my first thought is of his cameo appearance in a strange and wondrous film called Waking Life. And then I think of what Thoreau said about wakefulness– “to be awake is to be alive”– and that brings my mental train inevitably to the now-slumbering Warren Zevon, who said “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”…

I need to get that on my iPod!

meanings evolve

September 16, 2009

Our text touches many bases of proposed meaning, especially in the Existentialist and Romantic camps. But it really drops the ball in not mentioning evolution as a source of meaning.  So let’s begin to fix that:

That was serious, but maybe still too silly for everybody’s taste. Here’s an approach to the same kind of feeling about the immensity of cosmic/biological evolution that’s completely different in tone:

Loyal Rue concisely weaves  Everybody’s Story as a grand epic we’re privileged to participate in. Dan Dennett nominates Darwin’s natural selection idea as The Best. Both are good, and persuasive. Richard Dawkins literally shares with us the deepest gratitude for getting to exist at all.

But nobody ever explained evolution as a powerful, “spiritual” candidate for one of the large meanings of life better than  the late Carl Sagan. His deathbed nonconversion was poignant, his Cosmos conclusion eloquent and soaring, his Pale Blue Dot one of the most moving expressions of the improbable human journey  ever . As he says, we have walked far from the east African plains, and from Darwin‘s tangled bank. “There is a grandeur in this view of life… endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

And the beauty of pluralizing the meanings of life is that you don’t have to choose between science and God if you don’t want to. There is such a thing as a Theistic Evolutionist. Many will find that an oxymoronic or flabby conflation, but there’s nothing in the logic of our ultimate cosmic ignorance to rule out an Intelligent Designer.

Occam had a razor that might seek that paring– “Don’t multiply entities beyond necessity” etc.– but that’s achickenrazor separate argument. Simplicity appeals to the logician and to some metaphysicians, and the evolutionary hypothesis really is breathtakingly simple too.

But what it’s spawned is an increasingly complex and layered universe. Simplicity may not ultimately reside in the stars.

To be clear: the preponderance of the scientific evidence for evolution is overwhelming. You can’t really choose God in place of science, but there may still be room for peaceful co-existence.

Just don’t try to make the earth out to be only a few thousand years old, that’s nonsense. The cosmic calendar is much, much larger. On its scale, roughly a billion years a month, we’re just a few seconds old.   Happy Birthday!