Archive for the ‘ Evolution ’ Category

Black Friday – Christopher Hitchens Is Dead

In case you have trouble with search engines, try this link

You probably know who he was. Not so many of us knew him, rather we knew his views and public persona. Today is a bad day for his friends. I feel for them, and the brutish pain they may be feeling. Worse than that, I fear for the world. Not simply because ‘the Hitch’ is dead, but because the community of rational thinkers has lost a luminary, the community of rational thinkers has lost an icon and a wonderful example. Even worse than that his family has lost Christopher. I don’t really have words to describe the feelings I have about an event we all knew would happen sooner or later. We had all hoped it would be later, much later.

You have to go and watch his videos now, all of them. He was extremely consistent, cogent, and wielded the swords of rationality and anger with such precision that his victims barely knew they had been eviscerated before it was to late to react. His life is and will be evidence that the pen is mightier than the sword. His personal ideals and the way in which he thrust them onto the world will not soon be forgotten… though I long to live in a world where his ideals are common place and forgettable.

<runs to the liquor cabinet for some scotch>

I raise a glass of Johnnie Walker … The world is not as good a place today as it was yesterday. I’ll miss you Chris.

Not to sound like I worshiped the guy. I did not always agree with him, but he always managed to make me feel inspired. I feel that the world is a better place because he was in it. It’s still not perfect, but he awoke a strand of consciousness in it that will long outlive him. Prosit

Having a drink with the Hitch was on ‘my’ bucket list… prosit

I’m going to miss him, one of the few people that actually made sense of the world… prosit

I could spend weeks posting my favorite clips of Christopher Hitchins. Google for them, they will be there a long time… prosit

Good night Chris

Prosit

The Humanity In The Mind Of Evolved Apes

Introduction

I had not thought that I would have any thoughts long or important enough to want to break it up into a series. Recent posts and comments and the fact that Sam Harris is wrong have brought me to this dire point in my blogging experience. Gah!

I have no intention of ever being read seriously so I won’t stuff an outline into this at this point, but rush right into an introduction. There is some required reading or viewing though to get a good feel for what kind of cognitive geography I want to tread. That would be a TED talk by someone who I think is dead wrong – Sam Harris (youtube, TED Talk). He should know better than to do this. He is acquainted with the scientific method. Go watch. It’s about 24 minutes long, has nice slides, and he wears a suit. You should also look for the TED talk by Jill Bolte-Taylor (My Stroke of Insight). You could also spend some time checking out neuroscience videos and websites, perhaps some theory of mind, and last but not least some artificial intelligence information.

Further: This is not a scientific paper or my college thesis. It is my thoughts. I’ll probably work by blurting stuff out onto the blog and go back to study and add reference information at a later date. Consequently, this series is subject to change at any moment and without notice. I shall probably post a final in the series that sums it up nicely and links to the hard work done before hand. For now you’ll have to suffer through my thought processes as I write it all down.

What about the human apes and their big brains?

Where to start…   There is no real way to tell what it was that first caused human apes to drift away from their cousins. Perhaps it was the ability to walk upright, communicate differently, use tools, or maybe to construct abstract thoughts to predict future events better and to better understand cause and effect. Whatever it was I doubt it was because evolution drove us there. It is far more likely that we moved from the trees to the savanna because we could. It probably took 100 thousand years to get it right, but eventually it was possible. As soon as it was we left the forest and kept on going. In any case, evolution gave us the required attributes to make it possible to reach out to sate our curiosity. It may not yet be satiated. Fast forward one or two hundred thousand years and we have evolved into modern human apes. We are different enough from our closest cousins now that we find it difficult to understand how they can communicate, never mind how they do communicate. We look different, walk different, talk different, think different, and are in fact so different that cross breeding is no longer possible. We’re still figuring out how different and why, but the fact that we are is not disputed.

One of the most crucial differences is in how we think. That we think is not really a shocking bit of information. All animals think and make decisions. We are unsure how they do so or to what depth, but it would appear that most mammals have many of the same basic decision-making artifices as human apes. There is so much to learn about how brains work yet. We are learning new facts all the time about our cousins and how they think. Jill Bolte-Taylor’s talk delves into the two halves of the human ape brain and how it works by first person observation of its function during a major failure. There are many human apes who have contributed much to science by suffering brains that do not work right and allowing science to observe them. Sad on a personal level but thrilling on a scientific level.

The human ape brain is an accomplished decision-making machine

Yes, machine. One that is both aware of itself and it’s weaknesses and one that can construct abstract thoughts without relative physical world inputs. You can possibly imagine what it is like to stand on a bridge in St Petersburg Russia in the summer time yet you have very little information about such an event. The trouble is that we have words like memories, feelings, emotions to describe what would otherwise be known as activity in some specific area(s) of the brain. Like any measuring system, our human ape brains cannot easily detect when information is generated by our own brains and when it is something outside us. With so much information input to our brains coming from outside, our first instinct is to assume that all information comes from without. Say you might confuse a conversation with yourself as communication from extraterrestrial beings, or a message from a deity. There is only a thin veil of reason that tells us that it was just us talking to ourselves. We can do that. We have more than one central processor in our brains. Information is processed in several areas all at once. Jill Bolte-Taylor makes a beautiful case for a logical main processor which is time ordered and structured, and an ’emotional’ main processor which is not time ordered or structured; seeing all the sensory input data all at once with no time reference for each event.

The brain of the human ape has evolved to absorb huge amounts of data/input in real-time and compare and contrast that to all previous data which has been stored. The simple question of what is that object? whose answer is “it’s a chair” requires a huge amount of computation. I saw one the other day that looked like a huge, slightly misshapen womans shoe/high heel. But I knew it was a chair within seconds of seeing it. How many times per day do we each do this comparison function? This is one of the primary functions of the human ape brain. Is that noise a tiger? Are those round bits on the tree good to eat? What is a good remedy for stomach ache? How can I catch a fish? In fact that is all that the human ape brain does. Further it makes these assessments to determine if an object, situation, or action etc. is good for self, bad for self, unknown, or simply safe for self.

When you begin to pile many such decisions on top of many other such decisions and their outcomes, we get a complex trail of decision-making. Likewise, the results of such activities give our thought processes feedback when we assess how the results make us feel in view of the decision we made. Happiness would not exist if there was no reason to feel sadness or depression etc. Without changing states, we cannot experience any states. Our brains have evolved so that we assess everything, absorb the feedback, and adjust our future decision-making information. That is to say that we learn from our mistakes – most of the time. In the process we have evolved to constantly seek to get the chemical reward for making good decisions and getting good outcomes. Good in this case is relative to the decision maker and not to morals in general. A person can get good feedback and chemical reward for doing things which most others feel are bad. The brain and it’s processes are very complex. Consequently they are subject to myriad ways of disrupting them or skewing them in this direction or that. Drug addiction is one way. Love is another way. Anorexia is yet another.

Amazingly, the human ape brain operates almost open loop in as much as it can decide what feedback or information to assimilate into it’s repertoire for future decision-making. It is open enough that many of us crave feedback and visual guidance from others so that we feel we are doing things correctly. There are introverts and extroverts, meek and charismatic, fearful and brave. People seem to follow some sort of primacy in their brain functions such that some attributes are accentuated while others are suppressed. We mostly judge ‘normal’ to be those who are well-rounded, or distorted in a direction the rest of us admire. Very few people will not view a charismatic and confident person as admirable in some way(s).

I say all this because if forms a kind of basis for much of what will follow in the rest of this series of posts.

We are the result of a thinking machine which is self-aware, operating nearly open loop, capable of abstract thought constructs, and very capable of learning complex ideas. We are not limited to what our senses can show us. As far as we know there are no other life forms which have as many artifices as we human apes. We are intelligent enough to know that we don’t know all there is to know.

Decision making processes

We use decision tree templates in our decision-making. Templates which we construct on our own based on our understanding of the world around us and how we understand ourselves and others. These templates set up a set of ‘tests’ in our brain where we simulate the sensory inputs such that our brain is ‘experiencing’ the same things (or close to it) as the person in a story or movie, or someone who you know etc. When you think of that person you have a crush on, you imagine what they might be thinking. When you do that you have used a framework, and used it to project your thoughts into the world of the other person trying to understand how they would be thinking and feeling in the situation they are in as you understand it. When we apply such frameworks to other animals, it is called anthropomorphizing. Things such as ‘he was so happy to see me’ and ‘the cat was angry with me’ are such projections. No matter how much these things might be true, since dogs and cats don’t talk we can only use our framework and projection to guess at what they are thinking. This forms a basic but very important part of how we understand one another. It allows us to empathize with others or with a situation etc. We do this so often that is practiced, very fast, and basically not noticed when we do it. However, we are always certain to carefully observe the feedback from this projection exercise. It is why we are fond of stories and movies. I’ll cover music in another post. They encourage us to project through a framework and experience things that are otherwise unavailable to us. Why do we do this? Because we can, and because it is (to our brains) a real experience. This has been demonstrated on 3D virtual world games on-line. The player very often does experience real world feelings from participating in the game via projection through a self constructed framework which is augmented by the game world.

The human ape brain has a vast array of artifices? Not really, but the ones that we do have are very well adapted at interacting with the world around us. Evolution has brought us this skill set. Among the many evolutionary pressures, the desire to not want to breed with dumb people or weak people slowly weeds such genetic material out of the available gene pool. We generally do not view them as successful or admirable, and biology tells us not to mate with them. That is a very basic way to state it, but the effect is the same. The process is much more complex than that, but the basic principle is there.

What is my point?

The human ape brain is a decision-making machine. That is all that it does, ever… even if you can’t tell that is what your brain is doing because you only see the higher level reports, that is all that it is doing.

Objective Morality – Part 2

I was contacted by Neil Shenvi in part because I linked to his article regarding Objective Moral Values. He has esquired on my thoughts on his post. I had used it originally as an example of how the topic is treated in several basic ways. Neil makes a thoughtful case for the existence of objective morality. His comment and challenge to me can be found in the comments on my first post.

His is not a short post nor haphazardly written so I will attempt to give the reply at least as much care in return, in a point by point manner. Neil will probably think me a nihilist. I don’t claim the title. I only know what has come to make sense to me as I question what I’ve been told about the world and life. If you think I’m misrepresenting some ?-ists world view you are wrong. Here I represent only my world view. I’m not representing the atheist community, humanists, nihilists etc. I guess I’m a Z-ist. I don’t care to wear a label even though I understand how important they can be for conveying a lot of information quickly. Here we go….

In the first section Neil describes what he understands is the meaning of the second premise of the deductive form of ‘the moral argument‘. I don’t really have any problem with the definition of ‘objective’ as he describes it but there are a couple of nitpicks I’ll put forward as a premise to some of my later statements.

What we missed here is the definition of a ‘moral value’ so lets dive into that for a minute:

  • merriam-webster.com – defines value as: something (as a principle or quality) intrinsically valuable or desirable
  • dictionary.reference.com – defines value as: Ethics . any object or quality desirable as a means or as an end in itself.

We might well then conclude that a value is some quality that is intrinsically desirable, or which is an end to itself.

The first major relativist philosopher was Protagoras (c.490 – c.420 BCE). His book Truth contains his most famous statement; “Humans are the measure of all things.” To measure something is to give it a value and Protagoras regarded all values – truth, good, beauty, even existence – as dependent upon the human observer. That is, the value of everything is relative to the observer. (Edit: forgot where I grabbed this statement from … mea culpa, but it is written well)

The moral relativist’s view matches up with a general definition of ‘value’ as we understand it. It is a quality of desirableness or worthiness of something as assigned by an observer, in as much as one can observe moral qualities. To be certain, the word value has many uses, and thus many contextual meanings. I’ve tried to stay focused on the context of morality here. I do not think that Neil is attempting to redefine ‘value’ in his post. That leaves us with: objective moral (subjective desired quality) going once again to the dictionaries we find that ‘moral’ is an adjective with the meaning of ‘relating to the principles of right and wrong in behavior. That might leave us with: objective principle of right/wrong behavior with a subjective desired quality. Objective and value are not words that fit well together. So lets just expand ‘moral value’ as a modifier of value: subjective desired quality. That leaves us with objective subjective desired quality. They don’t fit well that way either. I will state that the discussion is off to a bad start. We have a problem with definitions before the gun is fired. It troubles me but I think this is what Neil actually means: there is a subset of desired subjective qualities which are actually objective in nature. This is troubling for two reasons mainly. First, what tools do we have to separate subjective quality from objective quality? Second, if such a tool existed we would not be having this discussion. I believe that more aptly defines the framework for this discussion, so lets get on with it.

Neil’s first section: I. What are “objective moral values”?

Paragraph one jumps straight to Hitler. How awesome is that? Here he also discusses objective value as objective fact and uses some examples. Note that this is meant to be equal to the idea that 2+2=4 is an objective fact regardless of who does the addition, where they do it, or what they do it with. There is no contextual modifiers which will change this objective fact. Consequently we are now talking about an ‘objective subjective desired quality’ which is either always true or always false regardless of context. We can also note that ‘murder is evil’ is not such a thing. Context changes its evaluation. Murder is evil unless done in self defense, in which case it’s good unless you are defending yourself from police shooters because you robbed a bank. Murder is evil unless you are wanting steak for dinner. Context changes it. So we are looking for “objective subjective desired qualities” which do not change depending on context. Lets say ‘giving to charity is good’ and see how that pans out. Well, it is good unless you are giving away your rent money. Okay, context changes  that. We begin to see the depth of the issue here because the only tools we have to judge with are subjective by their very nature. In paragraph 3 of section 1 Neil basically states that we don’t have any reliable tools to determine objective from subjective. I agree.

In paragraph 4 of section 1 Neil confirms that even if objective moral values do exist, they are not necessary for us to live our lives. We can be good without them, or choose to be bad even if we believe they exist. We both agree that if they do exist, they are not necessary for life or even for human happiness. At this point it would be easy to argue that it is difficult to then see what purpose such objective moral values would have. They are clearly superfluous to human existence if subjective values can over-ride them, or replace them. Please note that this is not practical for objective facts. We cannot replace 2+2=4 with something else at a whim or personal preference.If you are confused at this point, don’t worry. I don’t think there is any good understanding. Those claiming the existence of objective moral values don’t seem to make themselves clear on what they are, never mind if they exist.

On to section 2: II. Evidence that objective moral values exist

In this section Neil starts out by admitting that he will not prove the existence of objective moral values, but will instead attempt to show them more likely to exist than the evidence that shows them likely to not exist. This is a flee-flicker play. We do not have credible evidence for the existence of objective moral values, therefore those claiming that they exist bear the burden of proof. Neil himself admits this lack of credible evidence. I’m not responsible to prove they do not exist. I can only state my reasons for not believing his evidence that they do exist. If his evidence isn’t credible, then his claim fails. I do not have to do anything. The burden of proof is on the claimant.

Keeping these issues in mind, let’s look at the five pieces of evidence that objective moral values exist.

  1. The existence of objective moral values explains the near-universal existence of basic standards of morality, even those that disfavor personal or genetic benefit.
  2. The existence of objective moral values explains why those who explicitly deny the existence of objective morality still act as if objective morality exists
  3. The existence of objective moral values explains the nearly universal human intuition that certain things are objectively right or wrong.
  4. The existence of objective moral values explains why the majority of philosophers recognize the existence of objective moral facts.
  5. The existence of objective moral values explains why naturalists (e.g. Sam Harris ot Shelley Kagan) affirm the existence of objective moral facts, despite the problems inherent in grounding these facts in the natural world.

Oh, fun! Lets look at evidence #1 – The existence of objective moral values explains the near-universal existence of basic standards of morality, even those that disfavor personal or genetic benefit.

It doesn’t take super intelligence to observe that seemingly all cultures across the globe seem to adhere to a basic set of moral values. Neil expresses this with gusto but then goes on to talk about altruism as some special aspect of morality that is only human and is further special because it is found in all populations.

What puzzles me most is why –on this view– true altruism persists in the human race. Shouldn’t altruistic acts like self-sacrifice or adoption have been weeded out of the human population by natural selection eons ago? How could the pressures of natural selection have tuned the eye to detect single photons yet have failed to prevent people from rushing into burning buildings or diving into icy water to save others?

Well, clearly this is a question that many have asked or thought about. Neil seems unable to understand how evolution could have created such a situation. This also indicates that Neil is not arguing against evolution here. The evidence shows that all human populations and cultures are derived from a single human population and culture. It is not difficult to then understand that any useful and dependable value, tradition, action, or behavior would follow on to all other cultures and populations, being passed down from generation to generation without interruption. It befuddles me that altruism is such a difficult concept for Neil to understand. Defense of one’s ‘in-group’ does infer genetic self interest. Protecting your offspring is a biological imperative. It is easy to infer protecting the weak to ensure their survival. You should already know where I’m going with this. Protecting the weak is biologically programmed. The ‘accident’ part is transferring this from offspring to in-group members. Once that is done it’s easy to transfer it to other beings. From there we can now go to the Google: Lets see what the other animals on this planet have to say about altruism, shall we? Oh, there it is: Wild Animal Heroes! Altruistic behavior is not the sole purview of humans. This would give reason to hypothesize that such behavior is genetically derived via evolution.

Lets take Occam’s razor to this one. On the one hand we have an argument from ignorance and on the other we have a fact based process which shows evidence of producing this behavior in many populations derived from a much earlier one.  Oh, wait for it… there is news about this. Scientists have discovered what might actually be the mechanism for passing on altruistic behaviors.

Lets look at evidence #2 – The existence of objective moral values explains why those who explicitly deny the existence of objective morality still act as if objective morality exists

Hold on, we started this discussion saying that objective moral values must be some subset of subjective moral values that are also objective, and that they are superfluous to human existence and happiness. That is to say that humans can live life as they do whether objective moral values exist or not, and they do live so. This point contradicts Neil’s earlier statements without reasonable justification. That many people choose to act a certain way does not mean they are compelled to do so. If it compelled them to do so, it should also compel all others to do so and this simply is not the case.This is not evidence. I don’t even think it qualifies as argument.

Lets look at evidence #3 – The existence of objective moral values explains the nearly universal human intuition that certain things are objectively right or wrong

Seriously? We covered this in evidence #1. Ok, we’ll do it again.

I have recently seen first-hand evidence of this fact in interacting with my two-and-a-half year old son. As parents, we have to teach him to share, to be kind, to be gentle, and to do what is good. Often, teaching him to do what is good is a difficult task. But he has not once asked me what I mean by “good”. Indeed, he takes it perfectly for granted that some things are objectively good and some things are objectively bad. He does not occasionally confuse “good” with “whatever Mommy and Daddy impose on me by force” or “what will eventually lead to my own benefit.”

The human brain is a decision making machine, taking in all available information, sensory data, and knowledge to make decisions which benefit the self. A child of 2.5 years has only two main sources of information and knowledge: self discovery and observation of those around them – normally only its parents. The child’s brain has not yet formed the neural pathways which could lead to questioning the truth or value of what the parents say. Another argument from ignorance. Childhood development and learning are well studied. The human mind progresses through steps to get to adult qualification. Neil’s supposition that a 2.5 year old child is equivalent to an adult brain is fallacious and misleading.

Another equally important point is that I can’t even begin to conceive of how a true moral relativist would raise a child. If a child asks his parent why he should not hit his sister, I find it hard to believe that the moral relativist would answer “Because of self-interest. If you hit her, then she might hit you back.” Nor would the parent say “Because I am bigger than you and will punish you if you disobey.” Even the most committed moral relativist will find himself answering “Hitting is wrong. Stealing is wrong. Love and generosity and kindness are good.” Now the moral relativist might console himself with the thought that he is merely introducing a fictional short-hand to be replaced with the bracing truth of moral relativism once the child is old enough to understand. But I find it extremely interesting that thinking in objective moral terms is nearly unavoidable for both children and parents.

The emphasis above is mine. I find it unthinkable that a parent might scold a child with threats from an invisible sky daddy to produce desired behaviors, or worse, resort to biblical child rearing techniques. In any case, “because I don’t want you to” or “it’s nicer to be kind” are better than “god doesn’t want you to do it” etc.  Furthermore, neither child nor parent has to resort to thinking in objective moral terms. Remember, just a few short paragraphs ago we were in agreement that objective moral values are superfluous to human existence and happiness. They are also superfluous to child rearing. This evidence is neither evidence or credible argument. It was a non-starter.

Lets look at evidence #4 – The existence of objective moral values explains why the majority of philosophers recognize the existence of objective moral facts

This too is a fallacious argument. What constitutes a “majority of philosophers” ? Where is the score board? What does recognize mean in this case. If more than half of the US population believes in UFO’s does that mean they exist? That many people share a common value does not mean such a value is sourced from outside the human mind. Again, refer to my comments about evidence #1. Clearly evolution has a method to pass on biologically bound behaviors. Occam’s razor shreds this evidence #4 quite quickly as well.  If the reader will remember, Occam’s razor is basically what Neil said was the test for the evidence to be believable. He did not mention Occam or the razor, but explained it in an equivalent manner, at least to my mind.

Lets look at evidence #5 – The existence of objective moral values explains why naturalists (e.g. Sam Harris ot Shelley Kagan) affirm the existence of objective moral facts, despite the problems inherent in grounding these facts in the natural world

Wow! Just because naturalists seem to agree with your hypothesis does not mean that they agree with your conclusion nor that your hypothesis is right. Another fallacious argument.

The conclusion:

Here Neil asks the reader to question all the ‘evidence’ provided and think about and determine which possibility is more probable for each of the five presented evidences.

What I’ve seen here is not evidence. It’s nothing but rhetoric and fallacious argument. There is nothing in Neil’s arguments that seems credible never mind it being enough to make me think that he might be right about objective subjective desirable qualities. Sam Harris is wrong too. There are no moral values which are always true or always false regardless of context. Find one of those and Neil might have something to work with. This is just wishful thinking as far as I can tell.

Further, even if someone agrees with Neil, this does not posit authority to assume his argument proves the existence of a god. Even if it did prove the existence of a god, it does not posit that the god it proves is the one Neil believes in. Even if it did posit that Neil’s deity existed, it does not posit what that deity says is moral. Even if I give Neil a pass on all five points, there is no link between the supposed objective moral values and his deity of choice, nor that his deity is responsible for them.

What Neil has presented in his post is just wishful thinking. It fails to get anywhere near his stated objective. In fact, such argument augments my list of reasons to further doubt such argument from others. One bad apple may not spoil the whole basket, but if you see the bad apple before choosing one to eat,  you’ll move on to another basket for your food.

Objective Morality And The Hitler Problem

Every now and then I run across an article or post that offer an opinion that i personally feel is jaw droppingly stupid. One such article is a post by Richard Weikart about his work or more specifically the fall out from his studies and books. Faye Flam at http://www.philly.com attempts to take him to task, but I think she also missed the point.

I’ll use some context from both posts below but you should read both posts. Neither are very long.

The reason that I think this entire thing is jaw droppingly stupid is that Weikart is working on the false presumption that objective morality exists. Lets start with why some folk believe there is objective morality.

  • strongatheism.net takes the position that there is objective morality: First, it is important to understand that the skeptic answer can be seen as simply absurd and hypocrite. Most atheists would not accept subjectivist answers in any other area (except perhaps some nihilists), especially things like science. We rightly blame many Christians for holding Creationist positions on faith and subjective appreciation, because their position is not based on reality. But we must put the same blame on the shoulders of the subjectivist position in morality. To argue that morality is not knowledge and that therefore any belief or whim is acceptable, is not any more acceptable than saying that biology is not knowledge and that Creationist is true by default.
  • Neil Shenvi goes to some lengths to propose that objective moral values do exist and are proof of the existence of god.
  • TaylorX04 has a fun youtube video titled Why Objective Morality is a Farce (Part 1) I recommend all three of the videos in thsi series.

Anyone that ends up on the opposite side of a question from William Lane Craig is okay in my book. To be up front, I basically agree with TaylorX04. He manages to get to the point by asking at the 1:45 mark where is the evidence that objective moral values exist? That _IS_ the only argument here. Where is the evidence for objective morality?

Weikart writes:

Flam, however, tries to take a different approach. First, she seems to imply that since we don’t suppose that Galileo or Newton or Einstein should provide us with any moral guidance, neither should we expect it from Darwin. However, she (like many other Darwinists I’ve talked with) fails to make a crucial distinction here. Most scientists, including Galileo, Newton, and Einstein, did not ever claim to explain anything about morality. Einstein correctly rejected the idea that his theory of relativity had moral implications. On the other hand, Darwin devoted quite a few pages of Descent of Man to explaining the evolutionary origins of morality. Applying Darwinian insights to morality is not distorting the theory at all (as it would be for someone to draw moral implications from relativity theory). Rather, it is explicitly part and parcel of Darwin’s own theory of human evolution.

The use of ethical values in making judgments about the world around us and what actions we will take or not take do derive, at least in part, from the results of the evolutionary processes. Darwin, in his time, was not aware of the knowledge that we now have about biology, neurology, and many other bodies of knowledge which were at least partly based on his own work.We now have more information to work with. Using Darwin as the basis for criticism of current bodies of thought is often problematic.

The argument that there are objective moral values is not congruent with how we understand the world around us. We do not look at moral or ethical values in black and white terms. We see them in a wide range of variations. We rarely ever agree completely on how good or bad a thing or action is.  Examples include:

  • Lies: lie, bald-faced lie, white lie, big lie, little lie etc.
  • Person: good, very good, angelic, bad, evil etc.

It is in fact bizarre that anyone would even suggest that there are objective good and bad values. There is no other part of our lives where we make judgements about the world around us where we insist on objective values. We don’t have objective values for music, clothing, food or anything else where we use judgement about the world around us. That most of us seem to think Hitler was bad does not infer objective moral values. While you might find it objectionable, we do not require that people who like music that we do not be punished and it is incorrect in my opinion to, for example, want to punish people who do not hold the same moral values as we do. Those that believe Hitler was not wrong are not wrong to think so, though they may violate some other moral values in their actions. The point is that the differing views of moral value where Hitler or other such examples are concerned are all correct. There is no objective moral value to say what is right or wrong. To want someone to die is not the same thing as killing them. There is no need to have equal moral judgements on any given action. Was Hitler wrong? I think so, but you don’t have to agree with me. There is nothing that requires you to agree with me to be an ethical person. Is telling lies bad? Does this dress make my ass look fat? Is murder always bad? Do you eat meat? The Hitler problem imbues the argument with passion, but does not change the issue. What is true for the Hitler question is true for the ‘Is murder always wrong’ question.

Almost all  of us believe that murder is good in some situations, but not all situations. It is not objectively wrong. Narrowing the question down to whether the murderous Hitler was right or wrong does not demonstrate objective moral values. The best it can do is show that most of us agree that Hitler was not good. This is far from establishing anything like objective moral values.

Your behavior and actions will determine how I  personally view your moral value against my own moral value system, no matter what anyone else thinks of you. This is almost always true everywhere in the world, for all people.

Flam writes:

Weikart’s view that evolution’s proponents lack the moral grounds to criticize Hitler raises this question: Why should we hold evolution responsible for providing a complete moral framework? We don’t ask that of Galileo or Newton or Einstein. Weikert replies that evolution is different because various thinkers have applied it to morality.

This is a mis-step. Evolution can be applied to a great many topics. In fact evolution has some input on the question of why modern architecture is what it is today… in a 6 degrees kind of way. It is as it is because of human aesthetics, which is derived by neurological processes which were shaped in part by evolution.  In the same way, evolution has helped shape morality among humans.

The premise that there is objective moral values is simply without evidence or proof. No matter what argument is used in favor of believing this, there is no evidence. Murder is not always bad. Giving to charities is not always good. Lies are not always bad… round and round. If we can not see moral or ethical values in a clear-cut black and white manner, then it is not a valid premise. To make it a valid premise requires evidence. There is none. Just like the lack of evidence for gods, in this case absence of evidence is evidence of absence. We can look at the many groups over time claiming objective morality and failing miserably to show it.

Is there objective moral values? I have never encountered credible evidence in support of  it. I have encountered plenty of evidence which suggest there are no objective moral or ethical values. Here in the USA Christians will tell you that stoning gays to death is bad, yet their holy books says it is the moral thing to do… among other things they will tell you are bad.

The question of lesser and higher humans broached in the two linked posts is also not the issue that it is made out to be. Darwin’s ideas were misused by a lot of people and social darwinists. The argument is countered by positing that violent fundamentalists are not abusing their holy books ideas, though that is not a perfect analogy. Just look at dogs. They make friends with other dogs regardless of breed, size, color etc. Behavior drives their acceptance of one another.  Evolution has driven humans to behave in various ways to survive, or rather in the process of surviving some humans passed on certain behavior  traits.

The scientific method is not a set of moral values but is a method to discover the truth of the world around us. It neither defines nor requires objective moral values. If they existed the scientific method would find them. Likewise, if objective moral values existed critical thinking would show them to exist. That neither of these two methods have discovered credible evidence for objective moral values it is just jaw droppingly stupid to state that they do exist as a premise of any argument, unless you are presenting credible proof of the existence of objective moral values.

When we are morally good, it is because we ourselves choose those actions in accordance with our own value system. Our own version of being moral is different from other people’s version. If there were objective moral values, all religions would claim them, as would humanists and others because they would be self-evident. That many world views share some similar or common moral values does not prove there is objective moral values. The cognitive feedback called guilt occurs when we know we have not lived up to our own moral values system. We don’t all feel guilty in an objective way.  The argument for objective moral values means that Christians should feel guilty for not stoning people who work on Sundays. Do they? There is no demonstrable credible evidence for the existence of objective moral values. To assert that there are is to be jaw droppingly stupid.

Tools of life

It was a few years ago that my father retired. He did a lot of work with hand tools and power tools. He asked me if I would like any of his tools as he was giving it all up. Very decisively I replied “yes! I’ll take any that you are willing to give to me” because … well, I worked with him when I was young and learned the cathartic joys of building things. He happily came to visit with a truck loaded full of tools. These were not heavy duty industrial grade tools, but they are very useful for projects even bigger than any I’ve plans for. The Bosch jig saw is an awesome bit of engineering. Hammer drills and table saws never go amiss. The list of tools was long, and every one appreciated.

Today I was thinking about how I had managed now to use, with vigor, each of the tools that he gave me. Ripping wood to meet your needs with 10 inches of table saw powered carbon tipped blade is just awesome… every time I do it. It really is satisfying to ‘manufacture’ stuff, to see it in it’s place in your project, and to every now and then look up and think ‘wow, that came out looking nice. It makes me happy to have done some work that good.’

I was marveling about things like that today and a few thoughts crossed my mind. First, it was first class awesome that my father gave me these tools. Second, I’m not fully a neo renaissance man in the inspired views of Heinlein, but I come pretty close at times or at least I think I do. That number two point sparked a few other things. One is that my father taught me how to use these tools that he gave me. His patience and skill is how I learned this. Of course I get some credit too, but I can’t take all of it. Not only that but he gave me the skills to both doubt myself and others and the skill to analyze what is going on. I’ve not always done the most I can with such skills, but he passed them to me or helped to make them sharper. When my wife said she wants built-in cabinets I did not say I could not do it. I said I could. It’s not the kind of thing that I do regularly, but I was certain I could do it. Sure enough it took a bit of time remembering and figuring things out, but I got the first one done and took about a week of spare time to finish the second one (both sans doors at this point).  Just the same they have paint on and are well on the way to completion.

At some point in all this I did some math. I inherited some capabilities. Some were taught to me. My father gave me tools. I bought some wood and created some decent looking cabinets. Absolutely nothing in this entire decades long chain of events was supernatural. Not at any juncture did any ‘blessing’ give me anything. With the help of my family and a natural curiosity I have retained, gained, and improved skill sets that are useful. I really am one of the smartest apes on this planet. Not the smartest or even close to the top, but I belong to that group which all those do belong to also. I am one of them. It’s good to be human. It is good to know in some small way I have built something on the face of this planet that proves we are here. It may not last long, but I’ve built something that shows we apes are changing the face of the planet. I am proud to be part of a group which has done so very much.

On gods and dogs

I do not know what a starting point should be. There are many famous bloggers and famous atheists. I’m not here to follow them or even to follow in their footsteps.

This blog is just about how I see and experience life. You don’t have to like it. As a matter of fact, I’m not writing this for you.

Today I worked, out in the heat. It’s hot here. Over 100 degrees. Say what you want about climate change, I just have to live in it, whatever it is. It has been hot here before but that is never any help. Sweat is sweat. I am building cabinets for my living room. They are not special, except that I’ve built them by hand. My father gave me a truck load of tools, so I have what I need to do the job. The heat makes it slow sometimes, but I soldier on. I find that when I’m building things I have time in my head to think. I know it’s hard to imagine that, but I do find time to think, so my mind wanders a bit while I’m physically toiling away. It is cathartic in a way to see the results of your efforts in front of you, yet disturbing to find that your mind has time to do other things while you are desperately worried about keeping all your fingers where they belong.

I stopped for a dinner break. A full stomach slowed my work a bit. In one of the moments that I was being slow I remembered a thought I had long ago. At one point I thought about how the number 5 might be considered some magical number. All mammals seem to have five digits on the end of each of their four limbs. Even dogs. I did say ‘seem to have’ rather than assert that they do. Just the same, it seems some kind of magic that so much life has 5 digits, whether in use or not. Religion does not explain this while evolution does. This was important to my personal journey.

Gerrrrrr, that’s not the point, but I suppose it helps explain my varying thoughts. At one point I noticed the dog’s water bowl was low. I have one of those water cooler style watering systems for the dogs. So I took the tank thing to the kitchen sink and began to fill it up with the sprayer hose. It takes a while so I was standing there and in a moment of clarity I heard the noises that it makes. A whine from the water being diverted to the sprayer hose, some drips as the faucet did not run fully dry, and the splashing sound as the sprayed water plummeted to the bottom of the tank. For some reason I thought about each sound. Each is comprised of pressure waves that end up being sounds to my ears. Then with no announcement and great precision the physics and the math of each sound event swarmed in my head. The sounds almost appeared to be visible math formulas floating toward me. I did not understand them, but I perceived  then as the physics that work together to make the sounds. Yes, that was confusing, but imagine seeing the math for the physics of the sound that you hear and you will understand. No, I was not high. Synesthasia of a sort I suppose, but I think maybe all people see these from time to time. It was not long before I could see the physical action of each drop of water being forced through tubes and pipes, and then the math symbols for each drop of water as it moved along the path. It was sort of like the movie “the Matrix” when they are looking at the matrix on a screen. A bunch of passing symbols.

That is when it hit me. My dogs are afraid of thunder and lightning. They do not understand what it is. I do. I see the symbols in the air when it happens and I ‘enjoy’ watching thunderstorms. In my mind’s eye I can see the the electric charges building, then erupting with an explosion of plasma as the light begins to streak across the sky. I can see the pressure waves build as it moves faster; the boom as it explodes around the streak to create the thunder ‘bang’. I find even the simple knowledge of what is happening exciting even when I cannot actually watch all these things. My dogs, on the other hand, they don’t have that knowledge. They feel threatened, and behave as though they are threatened. I see it as my duty to calm them, try to communicate to them that it is no harm to them. It is nothing… even though it might at some point be harm to them. This feeling of responsibility to them made me think. I thought how comforting it must have been when the first person told others that there is a person in the sky controlling those bolts of light and they only harm bad people. I wonder how easy it would be to ally with a person who could explain the world in a way that made sense? Science tells me why things happen while religion tell me that god is punishing people with storms.

My dogs are happy and healthy. I do not know how to make them understand lightening. I can make them feel and behave more calmly. They do not cower from it. I didn’t even have to tell them there is a man in the sky… just that it is okay and that we’ll be okay. Next up: hot air balloons.

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